The city of Pasco will raze the Thunderbird Motel and turn the site into a parking lot after reaching a $1.2 million deal to buy the “nuisance” property.
The deal is expected to close by late April, with the city set to take possession by May 25.
The city will demolish the 40-room motel at 414 W. Columbia St. as quickly as possible. It will close the business and install a fence to keep out vagrants. Police patrols will be stepped up as well, said Mike Gonzalez, the city’s economic development manager.
The city and downtown denizens have long viewed the Thunderbird as a barrier to plans to refashion downtown into a friendly and safe destination. Demolishing the motel and replacing it with parking will serve two purposes – eliminate a nuisance and provide added parking in an area that needs it.
Gonzalez negotiated the deal with Thunderbird owner Song Ha “Mike” Hwang.
The 16,000-square-foot motel was built in 1965 and has two and three stories on either side of an “L” shape. It will be cleared of furnishings and equipment and will be assessed for hazardous materials such as asbestos before the wrecking ball comes in.
The .64-acre site will be repaved as a parking lot to serve Pasco Farmers Market and Peanuts Park, which reopened in March following a $6 million redevelopment.
The Thunderbird is a longstanding nuisance. Pasco police responded to the property 201 times in the first three months of 2022, Gonzalez said.
It is a mostly cash business, serving migrant farmworkers, as well as prostitutes, drug dealers and pimps, Gonzalez said.
The body of an overdose victim was removed in early April – after the city and Hwang signed a purchase-sale agreement. It was declared a chronic nuisance on March 28 over public complaints, a designation that carries a daily fine of up to $1,000.
Gonzalez said the nuisance designation was driven by public complaints and not the city.
“We didn’t target Mike or the Thunderbird. It was a natural process – me asking Mike if he was interested in selling and him saying ‘yes,’ ” he said.
Gonzalez said he connected with Hwang in 2021 when he was discussing ways the city might help downtown building owners install sprinklers to facilitate business growth.
The sprinkler initiative didn’t pan out, but it introduced him to Hwang and his wife, who were interested in retiring after owning and managing the property for about 15 years.
He praised the city council for trusting him to move through the process. The council discussed the deal privately in executive sessions. Dave Zabell, city manager, said the plan replaces parking that was lost in the farmers market project. The council will discuss the project at its April 18 meeting.
“We saw a real opportunity to create a huge gathering spot,” Zabell said.
Gonzalez said the city considered retaining the Thunderbird for low-income housing, but the area’s industrial zoning made it nearly impossible.
The Hwangs operate the Thunderbird under a special-use permit that won’t transfer to the city when it takes ownership.
Converting it to housing would require a change to the city’s comprehensive plan, a process that would take a year at a minimum. That would have left the Thunderbird empty for months, if not years.
Removing it is the best way to carry out the city’s vision for a thriving neighborhood centered on its updated farmers market, or “mercado.”
Investors have expressed an interest in a long-empty car dealership across the street. While there is no deal to report, it has been empty for 30 years and if it is repurposed, it could be a game changer for the area, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez also plans to reach out to the owner of an empty building that borders the Thunderbird to the west to investigate potential reuse.
If it all comes to fruition, the area around the farmers market could be transformed.
“There is a lot of potential right here on this corner,” he said of the stretch of Columbia between Third and Fourth avenues.
While the motel is not licensed to serve long-term residents, Gonzalez acknowledged some people could be living there. The city is working with social service agencies and the Tri-City Union Gospel Mission – another neighbor – to ensure anyone displaced when the motel closes is not left homeless.
An appraiser valued the Thunderbird at $950,000.
The city agreed to the higher price because the Hwangs will miss the 2022 growing season. Migrant farmworkers account for about 20% of the motel’s annual revenue. The motel grosses $60,000 to $70,000 a month.
Hwang also objected that the appraiser based the valuation on $50-a-night room fees. He said rooms rent for $60 to $70 a night and provided invoices to prove it.
“He had the documentation,” Gonzalez said.
The Hwangs paid $535,000 for the Thunderbird in 2007, according to Franklin County property records. They spent nearly $58,000 on updates between 2010-21, including $16,800 to replace the roof, according to building permit records.
It was valued at $557,100 for tax purposes for 2022.
The Thunderbird’s iconic sign is already being eyed by unrelated developers who want to refurbish it and use it in their projects.
Rob Ellsworth of SVN | Retter & Co., the city’s regular real estate broker, represented the city in the transaction.
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