Red Lion Hotel damage

Furniture and debris can be seen in the main hall of the Red Lion Hotel, apparently left there by trespassers.

In the fall of 2016, blowing embers from a two-structure fire briefly forced the evacuation of the nearby Downtown hotel, known at that time as the Radisson. Guests were given the all-clear an hour or so later.

The next month, another fire raged through the Pioneer Building, destroying a historic Downtown structure that had recently sat vacant. The hotel, just a few blocks south, was unscathed.

Next time, this hotel won’t be so lucky.

Extensive damage from the 2016 fires made a cause difficult to determine, but both disasters raised public awareness of the risks of letting buildings sit vacant. As the weather gets cold, homeless squatters can move in and light fires for warmth. The results are both catastrophic and predictable.

Is it preventable? This is the question city officials must ask themselves after alarming photos emerged of debris and damage from uninvited guests who broke into the hotel, which closed in 2019.

After the 2016 fires, city officials and local organizations said all the right things. We must secure vacant buildings. We must provide police protection. We must attract development.

Yet here we are, nearly four years later, and the hotel that should anchor Downtown is lucky to still be standing. Be thankful that it’s not yet winter.

The city needs both a short- and long-term strategy for this building. A Downtown Review Board needs to approve a request for half-inch plywood to protect doors and windows. It won’t look pretty, but neither does a pile of rubble. The police should patrol the area, but 24-hour enforcement seems unrealistic. (If communities really do defund police, say goodbye to vacant building checks anyway.)

Longer term, it’s time to start holding property owners responsible for the security and condition of vacant buildings in St. Joseph, especially larger commercial structures. The city needs a strategy for a viable Downtown hotel and events center, one that doesn’t rely on the casino as a savior. If the casino didn’t move after the 2019 flood, it will never leave its current location.

Finally, the homeless situation seems even worse today than it was in 2016. Just outside the hotel, aggressive panhandlers harass motorists who are waiting for the light to change for the Interstate 229 on ramp. An accident is inevitable because many drivers run the red light rather than deal with the in-your-face solicitation. The vacant building problem won’t be solved until the homeless issue is addressed.

Some of our readers learned about the recent hotel damage and suggested the best course of action is to just tear it down. We understand the sentiment but disagree with that solution.

But the city probably only has one more chance to get it right.