The city of Petersburg has sued the owner of the long-shuttered Ramada Inn on East Washington Street at the gateway to the city, alleging unsafe conditions.
City Attorney Anthony Williams filed a 267-page complaint in Petersburg Circuit Court last week seeking to compel the owner, Christopher Harrison, to address the city’s concerns or clear a path for the city to demolish the property itself. The city last month filed a warrant in debt in Petersburg General District Court against Harrison.
“How am I supposed to build a hotel, if you keep throwing all this litigation at me?” Harrison, of the Bethesda, Md.-based C.A. Harrison Companies LLC, said in an interview Tuesday.
Harrison, who purchased the property in 2018, said he is frustrated with the court cases and the city’s attempt to paint a picture that the former hotel will fall to the ground any day now. He said the city’s efforts are delaying his ability to lock down financing needed to move forward with refurbishing the building.
Petersburg officials have publicly said the building’s structure is deteriorating and it needs to be torn down. Harrison’s structural report says otherwise.
He said he has fixed issues within the building, including recently re-boarding up all the windows and entrances and closed all holes. He is now looking for construction quotes to fix minor structural issues.
Mayor Sam Parham, who did not return a request for comment Tuesday, called the former hotel “a bad look” for Petersburg in a news conference in late April. Earlier in the month, the City Council had voted to declare the former hotel a blighted property and a public nuisance.
“At this point in time all of us here are concerned about the welfare and safety of all of our citizens and we are not going to sit and let anything happen, waiting around for Mr. Harrison for another three, four years to move on the construction,” Parham said in April.
Between the “negative press conferences,” the city’s dismal unemployment rate and its financial past, Harrison said, it is difficult to secure financing for the project, contractors and top-tier hotel chains.
“The City of Petersburg has portrayed me as a guy who is a deadbeat, and who won’t pay,” said Harrison, who bought the property for $750,000.
In January, a meeting was scheduled between Harrison and city officials, before the city canceled it, he said. Instead of rescheduling, the city has filed legal claims and held news conferences. Williams, the city attorney, declined to comment on the January meeting.
Construction was ready to begin at the former hotel site in September 2018, Harrison said. With the funding in place, construction stalled after the state took back the approved tourism zone loan because Petersburg had closed its tourism department, Harrison said.
“I’ve been trying to do this, I’ve been bending over backward to help them but all I get is ‘Why haven’t you done this?’ It’s not as easy as people think to build a hotel, to build anything,” Harrison said.
The city is seeking permission from the Department of Environmental Quality to demolish the former hotel on the city’s dime and enter into a partnership with Meridan Waste, the city’s local waste contractor, to get the job done. Meridan is currently embroiled in two court cases, in Petersburg Circuit Court and Richmond Circuit Court.
While Petersburg has pulled itself out of financial ruin from five years ago, paying for the demolition “poses a major problem,” Williams wrote in an April letter to the DEQ, because the value of the cleared property will likely be less than the cost to bring the space into compliance.
Demolition is quoted to cost around $1 million, according to city officials. Williams asked the DEQ if Meridan could be permitted to demolish the hotel at no charge to Petersburg — in lieu of, or as an offset to, its landfill-related civil penalties.
Harrison said the building would sell for $1.5 million, the fair market value.
Built in 1973, the old Ramada Inn sits at 380 E. Washington St. The hotel changed names several times, most recently in 2010 as the Fort Lee Regency. The building closed in 2012.
Parham said in a statement last week that the city will continue to press forward and remains hopeful the proposal to the DEQ and Meridan will be accomplished.
The lawsuits, Harrison said, will further delay construction. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for December.