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Lottery Row gambles on security

Under pressure to change, Jantzen Beach businesses add guards


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Reiley, a drug-sniffing German boxer, has been deployed along with several new security guards to deter crime at the 'Lottery Row' strip mall on Hayden Island.Gamblers at the “Lottery Row” on Hayden Island are encountering a new cast of characters this month at the complex of 12 lottery bars: a fleet of armed security guards and Reiley the drug-sniffing German boxer.

Under pressure from Portland police and state liquor inspectors, landlord Gordon Sondland recently ordered a 20-day blitzkrieg to reduce drug dealing and other crimes at the strip retail center opposite Jantzen Beach Center. Sondland deployed four nighttime security guards, installed bright lights in the parking lot and posted signs warning patrons against prostitution, urinating in the parking lot and other unsavory acts.

“We’ve put a lot of resources to sort of flush out these bad apples,” says Julie Ramseth, Sondland’s property manager.

Owners of the lucrative lottery delis and bars also chipped in, in consultation with Mike Leloff, Portland Police Bureau’s North Precinct commander.

Dan Fischer, who owns the Dotty’s chain and six of the 12 Lottery Row businesses, deployed four additional security guards and the drug dog. “I basically committed to the North Precinct we’re going to fix the problem,” Fischer says. He also offered police access to his exterior video camera stream, which is capable of reading license plates in the bustling parking lot.

Come Friday and Saturday nights, when the place is jumping with Washington residents lured by Oregon video lottery games, nine security guards should be on duty.

“So far we’re pleased,” says Leloff, who launched a targeted crime enforcement campaign at Lottery Row a couple months ago in tandem with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. “I think the security guards are finding some of the criminal activity that we’ve been talking about,” Leloff says.

In the first two days of stepped-up private security, two drug busts were made. In the first couple weeks, 60 people have been cited for trespassing and ordered not to return to the premises, says Dustin O’Brin, head of the security company hired by Fischer.

Fischer claims most of the problems observed so far are caused by non-customers, including transients and others in McDonald’s sprawling nearby parking lot, which is largely empty during late nights.

Leloff disagrees, and says he’s concerned about the retailers' commitment to security after the 20-day blitz, which is winding down soon. Leloff also wants the retailers to provide a certified security staffperson inside each establishment, to work the door, check IDs and other tasks. Some of the lottery bars rely on only a single bartender to do that, Leloff says, and that's not sufficient.

Sondland will keep the stepped-up security “as long as it’s necessary,” Ramseth insists. “We’re not going to do all of this work and then have to repeat it at some time in the future.”

Still, she concedes the terms of the security contract are very “fluid.”

Hayden Island neighbors also offered mixed reviews.

“We certainly welcome it,” says Ron Schmidt, chairman of the Hayden Island neighborhood association. “We are grateful to see that they are getting beyond denial that there is a crime problem here.”

Neighbors worry that the attractors that caused the crime and vice problem — gambling, cheap cigarettes and booze — will still be there, he says.

“Even if you make the security top-notch, it is a blight on our community,” Schmidt says. “And when that security goes away, the problem’s going to come right back.”

Schmidt says the security blitz appears to be largely a public relations effort in response to increased heat from police, liquor inspectors and politicians. “They’re doing everything to protect a cash cow,” he says.

Last week, Mayor Charlie Hales told the Tribune he hopes that Lottery Row is condemned soon, as is projected to occur after funding is approved for the Columbia River Crossing, improvements to Interstate 5 and construction of a possible light-rail line on the new bridge.

Until recently, Sondland has largely been silent about the Lottery Row issue, avoiding media interviews and prepared statements, despite mounting public attention on the strip center, which is owned by an investment group he controls.

Last month, Ramseth said she was unaware of a drug or crime problem at Lottery Row, despite an average of three police calls a day to the immediate vicinity. Ramseth also insisted there was ample security provided by the landlord, primarily a guard who drives through unannounced every half-hour or hour.

But after police and OLCC inspectors began making drug arrests and issuing warning letters to Lottery Row retailers a couple months ago, the proprietors announced earlier closing hours starting Dec. 17 and new steps to avoid overserving alcohol to customers.

Then, after a Jan. 8 meeting between Sondland and tenants at his strip center, the retailers moved decisively.

“We walked out of the meeting with an aggressive plan,” Fischer says.

Charles Hare, a managing partner at CJs Eateries, which owns three of the 12 lottery bars and delis, estimates the stepped-up security is costing more than $30,000 a month. He says it could last indefinitely if needed.

“At this point, it’s got to be until the problems are fixed, until the outside agencies are happy,” Hare says.

If the lottery retailers survive this standoff with police and the OLCC, they face another hurdle in 2015. By then, the Oregon State Lottery Commission vows to trim the number of lottery retailers there in half. That would mean six of the 12 businesses lose their lucrative rights to host six state-owned electronic slot machines.

The ball’s in the lottery’s court, Hare says, noting the state is making a boatload of money at Lottery Row, mostly from Washington residents.

“Nine million dollars a year in revenue this parking lot makes for the state of Oregon,” Hare says, pointing to the small cluster of retail outlets. “That’s over $9 million a year in tourism dollars.”