Solution or Band-Aid

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With a local television station’s newly-built studios already a landmark, new restaurants and retail stores, Houma’s downtown area has made undeniable progress from near-blight to a beacon for new investment, and is increasingly becoming a destination for locals.

But mere steps away from the center of the action, prostitution, street-level drug sales and other quality-of-life issues continue to detract the progress being made, business leaders agree.

Law enforcement has targeted offenders in the area of New Orleans Boulevard and West Park Avenue, but the illegal activity persists.

A new cooperative venture between parish officials and the owner of a retail complex that includes a hotel long associated with quality-of-life problems for downtown has been hailed as progress. The Sugar Bowl Motel, standing in the shadow of Terrebonne Parish’s high-rise government building, has long been seen by officials as a nexus of criminal activity.

J.M. Gaidry Jr., who owns the property where the Sugar Bowl is located, acknowledges that there are problems related to the establishment. But he also says he was not aware that they were as rampant as some state.

He is promising to work with them toward change.

“We are doing our best to take care of the problem and implemented some steps that I think are positive,” Gaidry said in an interview last week. “We have some plans in the works that are going to, I think, work out for the best.”

With its cheap weekly and daily rates and its proximity to transportation – and the traditional open-air New Orleans Boulevard vice market – the Sugar Bowl is an ideal location for indolence, degeneracy and overall anti-social activities. Lt. Dana Coleman, a Houma Police Department spokesman, notes that vice issues at the gateway to Houma are nothing new. Problems with drug sales and other vices exist in other cheap motels scattered throughout Terrebonne Parish, he said, but the Sugar Bowl’s location magnifies the visibility of problems that relate to some of its guests.

But he and other officials are also aware that the Sugar Bowl plays a role. Attorney Carolyn McNabb is among business owners who directly blame the motel and what they see as lax policies there for the height and breadth of the problem. McNabb, in a March 17 letter to Gaidry, was clear in her accusations.

“It has come to my attention in the practice of criminal law for the past two years, that your motel is go-to destination for drugs and prostitution,” McNabb’s letter to Gaidry states. “Within a couple of minutes’ walk from my office, one can buy marijuana, meth, cocaine, heroin and an assortment of black market prescription pills, all at your motel. I represented an individual not long ago whose daughter and her mother were living at your motel and the mother was pimping out her daughter for drugs. She was 14-years-old … She is now in state custody.”

McNabb wrote that she had spoken with numerous business owners and law enforcement officials “who are painfully aware of this situation and would like to see this horrible problem addressed.”

McNabb said her certified letter’s purpose was to put Gaidry on notice, and that continued problems would see her and other business owners seeking to have the establishment shut down, under relative state laws and local ordinances.

“The threshold number of offenses to trigger a violation within a 12-month period of time occurs at your motel within a few months,” McNabb wrote. “It is appalling that these activities at your motel are occurring at the very entrance to downtown Houma from Highway 90, and three blocks from the Court House and Sheriff’s Office.”

McNabb communicated to Gaidry that he must take action.

A week later the property owner met with parish officials to discuss what could and should be done.

On March 24 at 10:30 am, according to parish documents, Gaidry met with Parish President Michel Claudet, Police Chief Todd Duplantis and Planning Director Pat Gordon. Bryan & Tammy Whatley, owners of Bryson’s Mobile Mart, which also on the Sugar Bowl property, also participated.

The discussions consisted of the motel working with HPD to resolve any type of criminal activities occurring on the property.

Gaidry and the Whatleys agreed to purchase cameras that would help law enforcement deal with criminal activity in the area.

Chief Duplantis wrote in a memo that he is encouraging officers “who respond to this area to take immediate action to any and all criminal activities, to include prostitution, vagrancy, pandering, loitering, etc.”

Duplantis noted that Gaidry signed a letter authorizing the police to “remove and prohibit from returning to the premises any person causing trouble and breaking laws of the state of Louisiana.”

As explained by Gaidry and Duplantis, the new initiative will route those bent on criminal behavior because an offense at one establishment – say, the bar or the convenience store – will result in expulsion from others on the property including the hotel.

From the standpoint of Duplantis, the plan makes sense because it gives law enforcement an opportunity to turn the screws tighter on offenders. That the convenience store and the motel will have surveillance cameras tied into Houma’s ever-expanding video network will mean additional catchment capability, he and supporters of the plan state.

McNabb is not convinced that the new cooperative venture is the way to go, however.

She said she had provided Gaidry with options for his motel including taking in families in need of help through state and parish agencies, or otherwise seizing on opportunities that would allow a profit to be generated while discouraging criminal activity.

“I have a business downtown and this affects me,” McNabb said in an interview. “Think about how outrageous this is. It is in the historic district. It is across the street from the hospital, three blocks from the courthouse and all this criminal activity is going on and everybody knows it. I don’t understand how that can go on right underneath the noses of law enforcement.”

McNabb is aware of the stings and directed patrols that have been used to control activity of a criminal nature in the area, but doesn’t see proof of an effect.

“For sport the police might make arrests, probably because it is like shooting fish in a barrel,” McNabb said. “I recognize that law enforcement can’t do anything preventive, but to ask them to step up patrols? Like when they couldn’t step up patrols on the bayou walk?”

Nonetheless, Duplantis stands by the plans, arguing that they are better than taking out a viable local business.

McNabb and other proponents of more stringent action are watching and waiting.

Anne Picou, Main Street manager of Houma’s downtown development effort, agrees that the vice problems plaguing a portion of downtown must be addressed, particularly in light of the positive progress that has been made.

“The Farmer’s Market is bringing people downtown on Saturdays, we have a yoga class, a walking class for pedestrians and citizens that is working out well and am excited about it,” Picou said. “The more people are walking downtown the less you will have the criminal activity.”

Picou is watching carefully to see what improvements might come from the new cooperative venture between the Sugar Bowl and police, and for now is withholding judgment.

“We see the criminal activity every day and just because we put a pretty Band-Aid on it doesn’t mean we heal that sore. It is not fair for those who improve their residences and improve their businesses. We have this sore that we are not trying to heal and it is not going away. I hope at the end of the day it is going away. We do get a lot of calls and complaints from people who moved back to Houma and are embarrassed to show their family members.”

J.M. Gaidry, owner of the Sugar Bowl Motel in downtown Houma, pledged to work with a collaboration of police and business interests to curb an alleged atmosphere of vice at his establishment. Locals in the area argue the business is a magnet for anti-social activities.