Crime and drugs are mainstays, and surrounding neighborhoods and businesses are fed up. But calling the Prince Down Town a ‘public nuisance’ is complicated … for many, it’s all they have.
Of the group of five men and women gathered in the parking lot — chatting and drinking from brown bag-covered bottles around noon on a mild mid-March Sunday — only one agrees to talk about what it’s like to live at the Prince Down Town.
“Bob” isn’t here because he wants to be … like others, he’s here because there are few other options.
The living conditions are poor — working heat, electricity and running water aren’t always reliable. Crime, on the other hand, is. But where else can a man, woman or family find a roof over their heads for as little as $30 a night?
“It is what it is,” says Bob, who asked that his real name not be used as his stay at the Prince is related to what he calls “domestic issues.” “It’s a place for drugs. A place for prostitution. But it’s also just a place for some people who are down on their luck. It happens to everybody.”
More than 130 calls were made to the Sanford Police Department regarding complaints made or alleged crimes at the Prince Downtown Motel from January 2017 through February 2019, according to SPD reports made public to The Rant in March. From those calls, more than 40 arrests were made in that two-year span, many of them on physical assault and drug- or alcohol-related charges.
Not everybody who lives or stays at the Prince is a criminal, and not all of the crimes reported at the Prince in the last two years have been committed by its residents. But whether it’s coming from people living in the historic neighborhoods that surround the motel, the city officials and businesses looking to revitalize Carthage Street and Downtown Sanford or the men and women who take the time to make weekly visits there to bring food and clothes to its residents, there is one thought shared by them all.
Something needs to change at the Prince Down Town.
“Everybody knows what’s going on here, and nobody’s doing anything about it,” says Bob, who in his next breath defends the motel’s owner and says you’ll find similar problems in other parts of Sanford or at a similar motel on U.S. 1, the Palomino. “I understand the perception. But everybody understands what this place is. They know what goes on here. As long as it stays in its place, they’re not going to do anything about it.”
‘TO PUT IT BEST, IT’S POOR’
The Town House Motel was built around the 1950s and early 60s, around the time Carthage Street doubled as U.S. 1 through Downtown Sanford (today’s route was constructed in 1957). The motel has gone through a number of transformations through its nearly 70 years.
According to Sanford City Councilman and historian Jimmy Haire, the Prince’s current office was originally a Gulf gas station next door to the motel. Later, it became a real estate office and eventually was purchased by the motel. At one point, the building served as a makeshift bar to which patrons could bring their own alcohol — this was prior to the passage of “liquor by the drink” in the late 1970s — and drink on site.
According to records available on the North Carolina Secretary of State website and at the Lee County Register of Deeds, current owner Bhadresh Shah purchased the property in 2006, before which it had operated as the Economy Inn for several years.
Shah declined to comment for this story in March when asked about the perception of his motel, the police reports from the past two years and the condition of his rooms. He also asked two representatives of The Rant to leave his property.
The Prince today is a far cry from the shiny motor lodge it was in its early days. Based on outward appearances alone, it’s a dump. The paint is peeling, windows are boarded up in the former lobby area, stairwells are littered with empty bottles and cigarette butts, and on this day in March, trash was strewn in the grassy area near the motel along Vance Street (next to an empty shopping cart).
While The Rant is unable to provide first-person accounts to describe the condition of the rooms, there are numerous online testimonies that paint an accurate picture of the motel today. Of the 42 Google reviews of the Prince posted in the past two years, more than half rate it as a one-star motel.
“I’ve stayed in some sketchy places, and this is by far the seediest I have seen anywhere in the country,” wrote Brandon Wheeler. “The room was decrepit with exposed wiring and drywall. We checked for bed bugs under the mattress and instead found roaches. There is mold on the ceiling and cobwebs everywhere. The bathroom included exposed drywall, no hot water and dirty tiles.”
A 90-second profanity-laced video posted to YouTube by Lamont Jordan showed cobwebs in his room, boarded-up windows, rotting wood under his sink, numerous holes in his ceiling and several tears in his mattress. Jordan said in the video he paid $55 for the room.
The Rev. William Sabiston, the associate pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Sanford, brings a group of teens and volunteers to the Prince each Sunday to provide food and clothing to the families and their children — both long-term and short-term residents of the motel. While his group does not enter the rooms during these visits, Sabiston on several occasions has knocked on doors to tell people they’re there to help. His description of the rooms from the doorway confirm what can be read online.
“First, it’s a motel room,” Sabiston says. “So if you can imagine a Super 8-style room, that’s all there is to it. But here, it’s very run down. Very poor conditions. [Residents] have told us the water comes in and out. The heat and electricity comes in and out. The cable they pay for goes in and out. Many find more enjoyment and better conditions in the chair they roll from their room to the porch over what they have inside. To put it best, it’s poor.”
Mary and her husband recently purchased their first home in the Rosemount-McIver Historic District — the young military couple was drawn to area because of its proximity to Downtown Sanford, a place they saw as “growing and thriving.” They liked being within walking distance of parks and downtown restaurants, shops and breweries.
They were unaware of the Prince — located just blocks away — when they bought their home. A week after the move, before all of the boxes were unpacked, Mary’s car was broken into — one of several on her street that night. It’s happened again several times since. During the day, the couple is visited regularly by men and women knocking on their front door or approaching them in their driveway to ask for money or work. More often than not, they’ll let the couple know they’re staying at the Prince.
“We had no idea the nuisance the Prince would be,” says Mary, who asked that her full name not be used for this story. “Because my husband is in the military and is often away, it’s frightening when someone is banging on your door at 6 a.m. and you’re home alone.”
The crime numbers from the Prince over the last two years do little to put Mary and her neighbors at ease. Since January 2017, 40 arrests have been made at the Prince for charges ranging from assault on a female (at least eight times) to various drug charges and disorderly conduct. In all, more than 130 calls were made to the Sanford Police Department regarding complaints or alleged crimes at the Prince during that same time span.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story — the list is much longer if you include crimes reported or arrests made within the quarter-mile radius of the motel, which includes the Rosemount-McIver district. It’s longer still if you include arrests made of men and women who used the Prince as their home address at the time of arrest (that number is difficult to track, as for many the Prince was a temporary home, and when they moved, their address is updated in online records).
There’s been one murder at the motel in the past eight years — in September 2012, two men were arrested in the death of a 20-year-old Sanford man who was stabbed in the back during a fight at the Prince. Two other men received stab wounds during the fight.
Sanford Police Department Chief Ronnie Yarborough confirmed the Prince is a location in the city that receives a “high volume of calls.”
“In general, when there’s a location with a lot of activity, we look at the type of calls we answer and whether they meet the criteria for any further type of investigation,” said Yarborough, who encouraged people living in or near the Prince to stay vigilant in contacting police. “Any activity that’s seen by people in the neighborhood could be useful and valuable to us. Please call us. It will always be confidential.”
The first time Phil (who also asked to keep his full name confidential) saw the Prince, he thought to himself, “My God. What an eyesore.”
Not long after his family moved to the Rosemount-McIver neighborhood about five years ago, a package was stolen off of his front porch. Phil saw the theft happen, chased the man and was able to snap a picture of him with his phone. He learned the man was staying at the Prince, and after a call to police, Phil got his package back.
He’s seen much worse in his five years living in what he had hoped would be a safe, family-friendly neighborhood. He recalls seeing two men smoking a crack pipe in a parked car in front of his house. He’s also been approached by several men asking for money or work. His cars have been broken into so often, he leaves his Jeep unlocked and keeps nothing but a Bible with a few dollars in it on the dashboard in hopes that if it’s stolen, some good may come of it (the Bible remains in the Jeep).
Phil and his wife have started a family since moving to Sanford, and they worry about the safety of their 3-year-old and year-old children.
“My wife and I have gone back and forth on whether we want to stay,” he says. “It’s hard to just let our children play outside with all the foot traffic — strangers — coming and going from that place. It’s concerning.”
Mary and her husband have also considered moving. But they have hope that things will get better — that the City of Sanford will consider action that would either shut down the Prince or make it a safer environment for the people living in or around it.
“We have a lot of hope that the historic district and downtown will continue to grow and be a thriving part of Sanford,” she says. “And I ultimately hope that the city no longer allows for a hotel that lets you to pay by the hour. This is not conducive to the positive growth and safety of a city.”
Mayor Chet Mann uses one word several times when talking about the Prince Down Town and its relationship with the City of Sanford.
“We don’t like the amount of calls we get there,” he says. “We know our police are frequently there. And we know people aren’t pleased with the way it looks. It’s complicated in that, in a sense, they’re good owners, because of all the crimes you listed, they self-report all of them. That absconds the Prince of liability and responsibility.”
Mann is referring to the process of nuisance abatement — where a government can effectively close a business or property deemed to be a nuisance based on several criteria. Nuisance abatements have taken place in Sanford a handful of times in the past decade or so — Mann points to the closing of the Tiki Lounge in Jonesboro, which was forced to shut down in 2016 after its liquor license was suspended for more than 90 police calls (including a fatal shooting).
State law provides the nuisance abatement mechanism to its Alcohol Law Enforcement agency, which would begin an investigation at the request of a district attorney, police chief or sheriff of the jurisdiction in question. Those investigations are typically against properties “used for specified illegal purposes” including prostitution, gambling, the possession or sale of drugs “and repeated acts which create a breach of the peace,” according to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
While it’s unquestionable that crime has been an issue at the Prince, it’s hard to say whether it rises to the level of the issues dealt with in 2009 at the former Club Bumblebee in Jonesboro or at a boarding house on Chisholm Street that was demolished in 2017. In the case of the former, neighbors of the club at the intersection of Frazier Drive and Industrial Drive complained of loud parties that spilled into the parking lot and gunfire coming into their homes when fights broke out. In the case of the latter, a man was beaten to death as he walked by the boarding house, which like the Prince was also the subject of mulitple complaints about prostitution and drugs.
And although the city initiated nuisance abatement proceedings against Club Bumblebee in 2009, the owners ultimately shut the property down voluntarily. The Chisholm Street boarding house was another story, with a court ruling that the property be transferred from its owner to the city in exchange for $3,500.
Nuisance abatement can be effective, but city leaders are hesitant to use it as a first resort for the Prince, since taxpayers could be on the hook for the defendant’s legal fees if a case is unable to be proven.
The motel, Mann says, does serve a very important purpose to the city. It’s one of only a few places police officers or sheriff’s deputies can take a homeless person or somebody they’ve picked up late at night so they can have a roof over their heads. Often, Mann adds, the officers are paying for these stays out of their own pockets.
“It’s a Saturday night, and we find a guy with no shoes on, it’s raining outside, and he has nowhere to go,” he says. “He says he lives three to four hours away and has no money to get home. We take him to the Prince. They provide a service we simply don’t have here in Sanford — a place for people who need shelter. It’s important that we don’t lose that.”
Rev. Sabiston agrees. When he and his youth groups took a trip to Washington, D.C. last summer, they learned a lot about ways to help the homeless and struggling families in their hometowns. Over the past few months, his group has formed strong connections and relationships with Prince residents. He says they’ve counted at least eight children who live there — for many of these families, it’s the Prince or sleep outside.
“There are a lot of bad and negative things happening out there, but it isn’t necessarily the people who live there longer term,” Sabiston says. “We have to keep that in mind. They’re a part of our community. We appreciate what our law enforcement is doing there when things go bad, and the people who live there appreciate it, too. Especially those who have children living there.
“We can’t simply get rid of this place and toss these people out. There are other solutions.”
Sabiston lived in an apartment when he first moved to Sanford four years ago. He recalls rent being about $850 a month then for a nice place — safe, clean and well maintained.
He was floored to learn that some of the Prince’s long-term residents pay as much as $750 a month to live there. If that sounds like too much for people who are forced to stay there, consider this — the Prince doesn’t require a contract, credit checks or background checks — making it an easier option for them over apartment complexes or nicer longer-stay hotels.
“My stance — and I’m speaking not for the whole church, but just as a pastor — is that the rooms shouldn’t be as they are,” Sabiston says. “Things shouldn’t be as they are there. There are places that keep and trap people who are homeless or down on their luck, and there are places that help and empower them. I feel that the Prince is the former. I want to see that change.”
“Phil” has represented the Rosemount-McIver Historic District at recent meetings and symposiums about future improvements for Carthage and Wicker streets, and he says the Prince is a common topic at these gatherings. The comments, he says, are never positive.
“I don’t get a sense there’s any sense of urgency to do anything about it,” he says. “I’d like to see it cleaned up and turned into a more legitimate business. I’d like to see it not be a total eyesore and a dangerous place for people to live. Or we can just shut it down altogether — except then you’re affecting a lot of good people who live there, too. Good people who don’t deserve to live in those conditions; kids who don’t deserve to live in a place like that.”
The city could follow the lead of Fayetteville to “force” improvements on the Prince. Fayetteville officials in February approved an ordinance requiring hotels and motels in the city that house people for more than 30 days to install a two-burner stove and small refrigerator over the next several years. Officials cited the fact that many residents were bringing their own cooking appliances, posing safety hazards. Residents argued this was the city’s way of shutting down these motels and forcing them out. The motels have until March 2022 to comply.
Sanford’s mayor says no similar ordinances are currently being considered by the city, but he hopes recent streetscape projects downtown and the upcoming plans for Carthage and Wicker streets — which include roundabouts, bike paths and medians — will lead to new ideas and options for the Prince and other rundown or empty structures in that area.
“If the city can continue to reinvest and redevelop and continue to make the quality of life better, then I think that eventually someone will buy the place out. Hopefully put some money into it,” Mann says. “I understand the public outcry, but there’s no immediate answer. We need to create the case for investment in that area.”
To Sabiston, the best way to create a safe environment at the Prince — and thus, in the area and neighborhoods surrounding the Prince — is by caring for it. And by caring for the city’s homeless population. That goes beyond providing a bed to sleep in or shelter from the elements. It means creating more programs to empower them — providing the resources that can lead to jobs, education and getting people back on their feet. It means creating more affordable housing options and facilities for people who need a place to stay when times are tough.
“It’s a big misconception that people are homeless or forced to stay in places like this because they made that choice,” Sabiston says. “When we approach this with compassion, I think we can help everyone involved. But if we just look at the Prince as an annoyance, we’re not making our city look good. If we do a better job at empowering the people in our community, then we won’t need places like the Prince anymore, because nobody would need to stay there.
“That’s the end dream. If we treat it as a nuisance, we’ll never truly fix the problem.”
Story by Billy Liggett. Additional reporting by Gordon Anderson. Send us your thoughts on solutions to improving the Prince Down Town and the overall safety of the downtown area by emailing email@example.com or commenting on the online version (or Facebook post) of this story.