‘No place to go’: Hotel sale displaces at least 100 customers


Edward Lauman has lived with his son Carl Lamar at the FairBridge Inn, Suites & Outlaw Convention Center for eight years.

Lauman, 60, has been disabled by a stroke and a broken back, but is caring 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 – who are scrambling for accommodation after the FairBridge sent a note to extended-stay hotel guests telling them they would need to find other accommodation.

“As many of you are already aware, the FairBridge Inn & Suites Kalispell, including the annex, has been sold with a closing date of February 12,” read a notice from the property sent to residents in extended stay on January 12. “…The buyers require that all rooms in the hotel, including the annex, be vacated before closing day.

Buyers, meanwhile, reportedly advised sellers to give current occupants a longer period to vacate the hotel, saying they were previously unaware of the notice sent by FairBridge.

“We strongly encourage you to offer residents 90 days to find alternative housing options and/or engage with local housing authorities to find a more suitable and appropriate solution that works for all parties,” Ziad said. Elsahili, chairman of Fortify Holdings, in a January 21 letter to FairBridge CEO Steve Rice.

“Nowhere in our contract does it state that the property must be vacated within 30 days,” the letter provided to Inter Lake reads. “…We understand that closing is dependent upon your delivery of the property to Fortify completely vacant, but we have never imposed this timeframe that you have imposed.”

Portland-based Fortify plans to convert the FairBridge into 250 studio apartments, according to a conditional use license proposal the company has submitted to the city of Kalispell. The Planning Board approved the permit application last week. It is presented to city council on February 7, but such decisions are usually made on whether a proposal fits the property, not whether people can be moved.

Although 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,” said 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 customers, many of whom are disabled, elderly, or enrolled in various forms of government financial assistance.

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

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

But many soon-to-be-displaced FairBridge customers say the cost and demand are too high at other hotels and rentals.

For Lauman and his son, their best bet looks like the backseat of Lauman’s van. “It’s our bunk bed,” Lauman said. “Unless someone opens a door somewhere.”

“STRENGTHENING IS a wonderful organization buying the property,” said Rice, CEO of FairBridge. “We think they really have a great plan, as does the Kalispell Planning Council, to help solve the housing crisis that this market seems to be experiencing.”

But not everyone trusts the hotel buyer so much.

In a public comment to the Kalispell City Council, Cassidy Kipp, deputy director of the Northwest Montana Community Action Partnership, addressed “current concerns” with Fortify Holdings. She cited a November 2021 Tri-Cities Observer report that Fortify had yet to complete any of its earlier 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 have broader concerns that the situation at FairBridge could jeopardize the community as a whole.

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

Horn runs an emergency shelter with 40 beds available each night, but she said the organization is turning people away “every night” because there is no more room.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Horn said.

Adding displaced FairBridge guests into the mix will further strain the city’s other emergency services like police and ambulances, Horn predicted. The added pressure could push the city to the brink of a community emergency, she warned.

“The impact this could mean on our community is huge,” said Horn.

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

Some guests are hoping that there is still a chance that the February 12 deadline will be extended. But Horn and others believe the solution is more complex than a temporary postponement of the moving date.

Horn wants to see a more coordinated approach to ensuring housing is available to a wide range of people living in Kalispell, including low-income and disabled people like many FairBridge residents.

“The [Kalispell] The city council is a very compassionate professional,” said Horn, but she thinks there is a lot more room for cooperation between different stakeholders to open up affordable housing options in the city.

“It is too late for us to do anything but bow to the powers that be,” FairBridge guest Mike Dittrich wrote to the Daily Inter Lake. “It’s not too late for everyone.”

LEAVING THE FairBridge could mean leaving town altogether for residents like Cheyanne Sciacqua.

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

“It’s a last resort,” Sciacqua said. “We are still trying to find a place.”

Her supervisor, Mandi Pate, demanded raises from her franchisee when she learned of the FairBridge’s fate.

“There are good people there,” said Pate, who oversees several FairBridge residents.

But without housing availability, an increase would not be enough to help households like Sciacqua’s.

She and Morris moved into the FairBridge in February 2020.

“It was a home,” recalls Sciacqua.

What she discovered in the housing market back then holds true for her housing search today. “There is nothing,” she said. “You can’t find anything.”

Sciacqua followed traditional routes to secure a rental and contacted several nonprofits, but each route she took turned out to be “another dead end”.

It’s especially stressful as a recent mother and owner of two dogs, Sciacqua pointed out. “As a first-time parent, you try to do whatever you can to provide for not only yourself, but also for them,” she said.

Sciacqua feels that some of his Annex neighbors are in an even worse situation than his family. Some residents don’t have a car, like Alfreda Hamilton-Piland, a 72-year-old wheelchair user. Others have “no idea” where they will end up, like Macy-Grey Lynn Sage, her husband and 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 dad read the letter sent to residents, Sciacqua said, “He was bawling.”

Journalist Bret Anne Serbin can be reached at 406-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.

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