Lease termination leaves Wisconsin hotel owner, tenants in search of answers
NEW RICHMOND, Wis. — A stride past a puff of cigarette smoke and children playing on the sidewalk leads to the entrance of the Lowrey Hotel, where visitors are greeted by a bulletin board in the foyer.
An assortment of messages spell out hotel owner Stacy Wright's code of conduct for tenants. There are many edicts among "Stacy's Simple Rules," as they're listed, but Wright said one above all sums up her philosophy as owner of the inn.
She can recite it from memory.
It reads: "If you are able to help yourself and don't, then there is nothing I can do for you. I have no children and don't want any. If you are unable to do for yourself and need help in any way, shape or form, I will go to the end of the Earth to get the help you need."
Those living at the Lowrey attest to that claim, saying the roof Wright puts above their heads has buoyed them during struggles. Criminal activity, homelessness and health problems are common baggage brought by those who stay at the hotel.
"Stacy was like sunshine on a cloudy day," former Lowrey tenant and New Richmond resident Anissa Burton said.
That's why Burton and others are troubled by the latest development at the hotel — an announcement that property owner Jim Beebe won't renew the Lowrey's lease when it expires Aug. 31.
The announcement has community leaders around St. Croix County scrambling toward a solution for the residents, many of whom are unable to find housing elsewhere. Meanwhile, tenants said they are preparing for the possibility that they'll be out on the streets come September.
"If they were able to go somewhere, they wouldn't be at the Lowrey," Wright said.
Many of the tenants are convicted felons; many are destitute. Some are both. Either way, most have no other immediate options.
"Nobody will house you," said 20-year-old Peyton Heistand, a convicted felon living at the Lowrey. "You have to own your own property if you have a felony."
As of June there were 46 people living at the hotel, 21 of them employed.
According to Wright, the tenants included: nine parolees, eight individuals experiencing mental health problems, five sex offenders, four veterans, four physically disabled adults, three vulnerable adults and three families with eight children in all.
Inside the building, tenants say they feel like the walls are closing in on them.
"To lose this place — where does a guy go?" said tenant Mike Seefeld, who's been living there almost a year.
Outside, community leaders are working to remedy the complicated situation before the tenants are forced to find other options.
"These are people," New Richmond City Administrator Mike Darrow said. "They need to be treated with dignity, as well."
Hotel for sale
The issue arose after property owner Jim Beebe decided the Lowrey's time had come. He said the property has been for sale for years, and he and his wife no longer want to deal with its headaches, which have included overflowing water running into lower portions of the building.
"My wife and I just want to see it gone," he said.
New Richmond City Administrator Mike Darrow confirmed that Beebe asked the city "to look into short- and long-term development strategies for this property," according to a statement released by the city.
But Beebe said he doesn't want it torn down. He said the building — for which he has lowered the selling price over time — will be more attractive to buyers if it's vacant. In addition to the Lowrey, the building is occupied by a funeral home that will close in the fall as it transitions to a new facility elsewhere in New Richmond.
Real estate strategy aside, Beebe said his reason for not renewing the lease involves his strained relationship with Wright.
"Frankly, I've just had enough with her," he said, describing how the Lowrey's condition has deteriorated under her ownership. "She's been a thorn in my side for at least eight years."
Wright said there's no love lost between her and Beebe, and she suspects he has worked out an informal agreement for the city to buy the building. Beebe declined to comment on that allegation, but said the development proposal was "kind of mutual."
Darrow said initial discussions about developing the property came up during talks about Community Development Block Grants over the past couple years, but he said there is no formal agreement with the Beebe family involving the building.
Mayor Fred Horne said the city has made no offer on the building, and the City Council has taken no action on the issue.
Darrow said the priority is finding living options for the tenants, with development taking a backseat for now. Once it's on to that, he said the city could assist by seeking out development grants for the property.
"That's not out of the ordinary," he said.
'It has some issues'
There is little question in New Richmond that the Lowrey has developed a reputation. Corrections agents use the hotel as a resource for recent parolees, and convicted sex offenders know it's a place where Wright will offer them a chance to live without judgment.
"I have people that have fallen between the cracks of society," Wright said.
Meanwhile, the hotel is visited regularly by police, who have made drug busts, domestic violence arrests and taken sexual assault reports. According to city data, there have been 577 calls for service to the Lowrey during the past five years. The next hotel on the list received 111 calls in the same period.
"It has a negative connotation to it," Horne said. "It has some issues there."
Wright contends the hotel's reputation is the victim of misconceptions drawn from police presence and rumors.
"They just judge like the rest of the world," she said.
Darrow said one aspect of the struggle there, however, is that the Lowrey's diverse population is often in need of security and social worker-level management that's not present.
"That's an issue," he said.
Wright serves as de-facto social worker, holding informal counseling sessions and shuttling tenants to appointments, but even she admits there are limitations.
"Sometimes there's problems I can't handle," she said.
Those issues aren't going anywhere for now — at least until after Aug. 31.
"They're definitely worried," Wright said of the tenants. "As it gets closer, the anxiety level's going to rise."
Editor's note: Lowrey Hotel tenants describe their stories and their concerns about the future in Part 2 of this series, continuing next week.