Photo by Mark Metzger

Photo by Mark Metzger

The Economy Inn on Bardstown Road has taken a beating over the past year – from the public health department, Metro Council members, the press and neighbors – with more failed inspections and news stories solidifying its public perception as a crime-ridden roach motel and blight on its neighborhood.

Though the Michigan-based Yaldo brothers who own the motel usually have responded to such reports with short denials or no comment at all, they now are vowing to take a much different approach in order to aggressively defend the reputation of the motel and themselves. The Yaldos have hired a Michigan public relations firm to counter this image; the firm invited Insider Louisville to the Economy Inn on Sept. 15 for an hour-and-a-half long discussion.

The Yaldos claim city officials harassed them and manipulated their last failed public health inspection in August, saying the city has an agenda to shut down the Economy Inn to clear the way for a new Costco nearby, and that they are being discriminated against because of their Iraqi heritage. While they also claim the motel’s past issues with crime and cleanliness have been exaggerated, the Yaldos say they are making a renewed commitment to improving the motel, hiring a new general manager this summer and providing receipts intending to show they are halfway through a $750,000 renovation.

However, all of this effort may be for naught, as the Economy Inn goes before a state board next week to defend itself over the 48 percent failing grade it received on its last inspection by Louisville’s public health department, which issued its second notice of intent to suspend the motel’s operating permit this year. Though city officials could subsequently shut down the hotel once and for all — to the delight of long-perturbed neighbors — the Yaldos aren’t going down without a fight.

Public Relations

Mort Meisner

Mort Meisner

The Yaldo family immigrated to America from Iraq roughly 40 years ago, according to PR and crisis management specialist Mort Meisner.

Throughout our conversation, Meisner repeatedly emphasized that the public’s perception of his clients as “foreigners” has played a role in the scapegoating of their motel all while their Chaldean loved ones back home are being slaughtered by ISIS, “just like the Jews were murdered in Germany by Hitler.”

“Chaldeans are Christian Iraqis, not muslims,” Meisner reiterated.

“My point is, these are hard-working industrious people, and it breaks my heart and it breaks their heart that some in city hall and some in the media have not treated them fairly,” said Meisner. “Because these guys have stress — their family members are being killed, their loved ones and friends are being murdered. But they are here trying to fill a need in the community.”

This was one of Meisner’s main themes as we sat in an office just behind the Economy Inn’s front desk: the story of hardworking immigrants dutifully serving a poor clientele.

However, that story has long been countered by neighbors and an assortment of other critics who claim the Yaldos are more accurately characterized as absentee landlords who have let their hotel fall into disrepair and squalor, as well as turning a blind eye to their customers’ omnipresent criminal activities – from the use and sale of drugs, to prostitution and human trafficking.

While these critics contend the Yaldos essentially have served as exploiters of the downtrodden, Meisner contends they serve a public good, providing low-income housing – with some residing there for years – for those who have nowhere else to go.

“Where the heck are they going to go live for $200 a week?” said Meisner. “Much is said about ‘we don’t want homeless people, we don’t want people living on the street.’ We provide a place here. We have residents certainly who have been in the corrections system, but we also have good people with a bad break, but we also have good people who are not highly educated… They need to live somewhere. And everyone says that, but they don’t want it in their neighborhood.”

While saying “we treat every customer like it is the Hyatt,” Meisner acknowledged the motel tends to serve a clientele more apt to a criminal past or present, but emphasized that the new manager hired this summer, Avis Zoma, has zero tolerance for such behavior. And while much has been made of the enormous amount of police runs to the motel – 1,351 in 2014 alone – he added that this includes a daily voluntary check of their motel logs by LMPD to check for outstanding warrants.

“We realize that the manager previously (Kelly Kado) may not have aggressively done what we needed to do, but a lot of what is written about here is absolutely and categorically untrue,” said Meisner.

Of such media reports, Meisner took the most issue with the account of former late-shift desk clerk Angel Bennett. As first reported by IL, Bennett claimed the Yaldos and Kado ignored criminal activity by both Economy Inn staff and customers. Her most serious charge was that hotel records showed owner Tony Yaldo allegedly observed two teenage girls soliciting sex out of a motel room and did nothing to stop it, with one girl allegedly telling Bennett that Yaldo told her it was OK for her to stay in the room.

Meisner claimed Bennett was “wrong on virtually everything she says,” adding that “any time someone tells you that they’re an ex-worker and they’re bitching, usually they’re having an axe to grind.” He said that while an employee accused of stealing out of a room was once accidentally hired back, he categorically denied Bennett’s accusations about the teenagers. As for prostitution and drugs at the hotel, Meisner said no hotel can ever fully eradicate them entirely.

“If (a customer checking in) has a skirt up to here and a top down to here, we’re not going to rent to them, we’re just not,” said Meisner. “When you’re checking in, you don’t say to someone, ‘Oh by the way, are you a drug dealer? Are you a prostitute?’ It doesn’t happen… Some of the finest hotels in the country, we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. But when we find out, we address it.”

Meisner also dismissed other allegations of human trafficking of girls at the motel — from an employee of a nearby home for troubled teens, and a study by University of Louisville professor Teresa Hayden showing that area is a hotspot for online sex-solicitation ads.

“This human trafficking thing… that’s a pretty lofty word,” said Meisner, who added that Zoma now checks such websites to make sure no one is advertising for sex at the motel. “Not to cast aspersions on this professor, but a professor, a policeman, a city councilman… just because they say it’s so doesn’t make it so.”