City officials close in on 'The Gap'
Williams one step closer to obtaining Reuter property through court's ruling
Officials with the city of Williams took a large step forward this month in their ongoing battle against property-owner Frances Reuter, who owns a number of properties in town, properties that city officials say have been left in a state of disrepair for a number of years. A Flagstaff judge ruled in favor of the city of Williams after a hearing held April 12 at the Williams Justice Court. The judge awarded restitution to the city in the amount of $123,221.12. Reuter, who did not appear for the sentencing, was fined on 14 counts of violation of city codes and has until May 16 to contact the court for a payment arrangement, according to court documents.
"For a number of years Williams has been working to abate a number of Frances Reuter properties. We have a number of properties in town owned by an L.L.C. called Yellow Daisy, but Yellow Daisy is owned by a lady named Frances Reuter and these are then referred to as the Reuter properties in Williams, the old elementary school is one, the old El Pinado Hotel is another one. The building that burned down, what they refer to as the youth hostel, that's actually a building that was built, I believe, in the late 1800's, was a Reuter property," said Williams City Manager Dennis Wells. "These are properties that were acquired years ago by Mrs. Reuter and then, basically, they were left to just sit there without any maintenance or any work on the buildings at all. So you had properties that were already in somewhat poor condition that just continued, year by year, to go downhill."
Reuter purchased a number of properties in the 1980's, including the Grand Canyon Hotel, the old Williams Elementary School located on Third Street, the youth hostel, the El Pinado Hotel and an area church camp. Many of the properties, according to city officials, were left in a state of disrepair for a number of years, though a couple of the properties were eventually sold, including the church camp and the Grand Canyon Hotel. Owners Oscar and Amy Fredrickson have since renovated the hotel. Misdemeanor warrants were issued for Reuter for failure to appear at a number of court hearings regarding a number of issues, including building code violations. The warrants were subsequently quashed when Reuter appeared before court. Documents for the April 12 hearing show four different mailing addresses for Reuter, two in California and two in Arizona.
Catching a break
"Our strategy was to tally up all the expenses that she has incurred with her lack of maintaining and looking after her building," said Wells. "We caught a break a number of months ago, when (city attorney) Richard Depont found out she was appearing in a court in Phoenix (on a separate matter) and through some maneuvering, he was able to get her to appear, telephonically, with the Williams Court from the Phoenix court. As she was leaving that court hearing, she was corralled by Mr. Deponte and two Phoenix policemen and, basically, sequestered in a room in the court and then Judge Sutton was able to conduct a hearing. That hearing was the first step to us getting a judgement here."
Besides a ruling in favor of the city of Williams, authorities also sentenced Reuter to one year of unsupervised probation during the April 12 hearing.
The youth hostel, located on the 100 block of West Route 66, caught fire June 20, 2005 in what came to be known as one of the worst downtown fires in recent history. Fire crews used over one million gallons of water to douse the conflagration, according to city officials. Abatement for asbestos and demolition followed the blaze a short while later; leaving a vacant lot nicknamed "The Gap" by area residents, where the hostel once stood. The lot is located between the Canyon Club and the Red Garter Bed and Bakery along Route 66 in the downtown area.
The cost of 'The Gap'
"The city of Williams spent a lot of money to not only put out the fire, to extinguish the fire, but we were actually spending the money prior to that, trying to contact her, going through legal maneuvers to try to get her to fix up the buildings, to maintain them, to prevent safety hazards in the buildings," said Wells. "They eventually get to a state where they have to be condemned and at that state, it means you have to tear the building down or a specialist has to come in and rebuild. Unfortunately, one of our most historic buildings was lost due to fire. The city spent between $100,000 and $200,000, I think the figure was right around $150,000, to extinguish the fire and then abate the property, or clean up the property. We had to hire a contractor that was versed and certified in asbestos removal. We added all these figures up and thought, in Council's judgement, the only way the city was going to recover this loss for the citizens of Williams was to go after Mrs. Reuter legally and attempt to get her to pay for all the costs that we have incurred. We'd been working on obtaining a lien for some time now, but the key component was what we just got as far as the restitution by a court of law," said Wells.
Reuter, according to Wells, filed an appeal against the judgement within hours of the April 12 hearing, though she was not physically present at the time.
"The good news is that we stand a reasonably good chance of obtaining the property to pay for damages the city of Williams has incurred. That's our plan of action."
Wells said the appeal process, while taking time, will eventually come to an end.
"Then the city will seek to set the restitution against the property as a lien. We don't know exactly what the property is worth, but I would say its worth is in excess of these dollar figures. It has commercial frontage on Railroad Avenue and Route 66. It could be an office building, but I believe, because of its location, it could be tourist related. It's a great location."
Should the city of Williams come into ownership of the property, Wells said the decision would then go to council to decide what to do with the asset.
John Holst, owner of the Red Garter Bed and Bakery, said he would like to see something replace the vacant lot that would make a positive contribution to the downtown landscape. Holst said the 2005 fire cost his business "tens of thousands of dollars" in smoke and water damage.
"I was at that court hearing, at that sentencing, and I did speak to the judge on behalf of all the neighbors. Really my statements there had to do with getting some kind of conclusion on the mess we have," said Holst. "My intent was that the court would make some kind of sentence that would actually cause Frances to do something."
Holst said the current predicament regarding a vacant lot does none of the business owners in the area any good, but questioned whether anything would happen to improve the situation any time soon.
"It's gone on for 27 years, I would hope it wouldn't go on for much more," Holst said. "We can only hope that this would end sooner rather than later."
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