Kalispell hotel sale displaces 100 long-term residents

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — Edward Lauman has lived with his son Carl Lamar at the FairBridge Inn, Suites & Outlaw Convention Center for eight years.

Lauman, 60, was disabled by a stroke and a broken back, but still serves as a caregiver for his 34-year-old son, who is living with a brain injury. The pair are among at least 100 people — according to the hotel’s CEO — scrambling to find housing after the FairBridge sent a note to hotel guests who were staying longer, telling them to look for other accommodations.

“As many of you already know, the FairBridge Inn & Suites Kalispell, including the annex, has been sold with a closing date of Feb. 12,” said a message from the property sent to long-term residents on Jan. 12. “… The buyers are demanding that all rooms of the hotel, including the annex, be vacated before the closing day.”

The buyers reportedly advised the sellers to give the current residents a longer time to vacate the hotel, as they were previously unaware of FairBridge’s notification.

We strongly recommend that you offer residents 90 days to find alternative housing options and/or work with the local housing authorities to find a more suitable and appropriate solution that works for all parties. Ziad Elsahili, president of Fortify Holdings, in a letter to Steve Rice, CEO of FairBridge, dated Jan. 21.

“Nowhere in our contract does it say that the property must be vacated within 30 days,” the letter to the Daily Inter Lake reads. “…We understand that closure is dependent on you delivering the property to Fortify completely empty, but we have never imposed this timeline imposed by you.”

Portland-based Fortify plans to convert the FairBridge into 250 studio apartments, according to a proposal for a conditional use permit the company has submitted to the City of Kalispell. The Planning Bureau recently approved the permit application. It comes before the city council on Feb. 7, but such decisions are usually made about whether a proposal fits the property, not whether people can be moved.

While the proposal will eventually create housing for Kalispell residents, the short-term effects will displace current residents from the extended-stay portion of the hotel.

“We just don’t have a place to go,” says Lauman, who was born and raised in Kalispell.

Kalispell’s 0% vacancy rate makes finding an alternative to the FairBridge a daunting prospect for current guests, many of whom are disabled, elderly or enrolled in various forms of government financial aid.

In the message sent to guests, Steve Rice, CEO of FairBridge, offered a list of alternative hotel options for extended stay in Kalispell.

“It’s a good time of year for that,” Rice told Inter Lake. “As anyone in the hotel industry knows, there are a lot of empty hotel rooms in Kalispell at this time of year.”

But many of the soon-to-be-moving FairBridge guests say the cost and demand is too high at other hotels and rental companies.

For Lauman and his son, their best bet seems to be sitting in the back seat of Lauman’s pickup truck. “That’s our bunk bed,” Lauman said. “Unless someone opens a door somewhere.”

“Fortify is a great organization buying the property,” said Rice, CEO of FairBridge. “We think they have a really great plan, just like the Planning Board there in Kalispell, to help address the housing crisis that that market seems to be experiencing.”

But not everyone has so much faith in the buyer of the hotel.

In a public comment to the Kalispell City Council, Cassidy Kipp, deputy director of Northwest Montana’s Community Action Partnership, raised “current concerns” with Fortify Holdings. She quoted a November 2021 Tri-Cities Observer news report reporting that Fortify had not yet completed any of its previous hotel conversion projects.

Fortify project manager Cameron Wagar said Fortify now has two move-in ready properties in Medford, Oregon and Spokane, Washington.

Other nonprofit leaders in the valley are concerned that the situation at the FairBridge is endangering the community as a whole.

“We are already operating at maximum capacity,” said Tonya Horn, executive director of the Flathead Warming Center.

Horn runs an emergency shelter with 40 beds a night, but she says the organization sends people away at night because there is no more space.

“That’s just heartbreaking,” Horn said.

Adding displaced FairBridge guests will put even more pressure on the city’s other emergency services, such as police and ambulances, Horn predicted. The additional tax could push the city over the brink of an emergency, she warned.

“The impact this can have on our community is huge,” Horn said.

“We should all stop and think about the ramifications of closing the Fairbridge Inn,” Matt Evans, a former FairBridge guest, wrote at Inter Lake.

Some guests are hoping there’s still a possibility of extending the February 12th deadline. But Horn and others believe the solution is more complex than a temporary delay in the move date.

Horn wants a more coordinated approach to ensure housing is available to a wide range of people living in Kalispell, including those on low incomes and those with disabilities like many of the FairBridge residents.

“The (Kalispell) City Council are very compassionate professionals,” Horn said, but she thinks there is much more room for collaboration between different stakeholders to open up affordable housing options in the city.

“It is too late for us to do anything but bow to current power,” Mike Dittrich, a FairBridge guest, wrote to the Daily Inter Lake. “It’s not too late for the rest.”

For residents like Cheyanne Sciacqua, leaving the FairBridge could mean leaving the city altogether.

Sciacqua, her fiancé Anthony Morris and their six-month-old son Jordan Morris plan to move to Missoula if they can’t find housing. They think they can work there if they can’t get a new place to stay in the Flathead.

“It’s a last resort,” Sciacqua said. “We are still looking for a place.”

Her supervisor, Mandi Pate, asked her franchisee for a raise when she learned about the fate of the FairBridge.

‘There are good people there,’ says Pate, who supervises several FairBridge residents.

But without housing, a raise would not be enough to help households like Sciacquas.

She and Morris moved to the FairBridge in February 2020.

“It was a place to call home,” Sciacqua recalls.

What she discovered about the housing market then still applies to her search for a home. “There’s nothing,” she said. “You can’t find anything.”

Sciacqua has followed the traditional routes of getting a rental home, and she’s approached several non-profits, but every path she’s taken has turned out to be “a new dead end.”

It’s especially stressful as a recent mom and owner of two dogs, Sciacqua noted. “As a new parent, you try to do everything you can to take care of not only yourself, but also them,” she said.

Sciacqua feels that some of her neighbors in the Secret Annex are in even greater trouble than her family. Some residents do not have a car, such as 72-year-old wheelchair user Alfreda Hamilton-Piland. Others have “no idea” where they will end up, such as Macy-Grey Lynn Sage, her husband and her son, who is almost 2 years old. Still others face additional extenuating circumstances, such as Amber Westphal, whose 7-year-old son Jaeson Anderson recently underwent surgery.

When a single father read the letter sent to residents, Sciacqua said, “he cried his eyes out.”

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