By Alec Luhn
For the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
WISCONSIN DELLS — They were once vacation destinations, quaint motels with small rooms or cabins.
But with the development of large motels such as the Kalahari Resort Convention Center with its 752 modern guest rooms, the old motels that dot the Wisconsin Dells area began losing clientele.
Many have been reborn as group lodging for international students and other temporary workers in one of Wisconsin’s top tourist destinations.
For the estimated 2,000 college students who come from abroad each year to fill the labor gap in the Dells, finding housing is far from guaranteed.
Many employers don’t provide quarters, and everyone acknowledges there’s barely enough capacity for the temporary workers.
“After the middle of June, it’s impossible to get housing,” said Mark Nykaza, owner of the 49-room Fairview Motel, which uses most of its rooms for group lodging. “This year, if we had 200 rooms, we’d still be turning people away.”
Chris Swart, the owner of three group housing establishments, blamed the “shortage of clean, safe, licensed (group lodging) facilities” on local governments’ failure to require large resorts to provide employee housing. That means workers often have to travel long distances to work and buy groceries, he said.
Swart said housing for temporary workers in the Dells “has always been an afterthought.”
“It’s something that should have been developed a long time ago,” he said. “As the resorts grow, they’re going to have more and more people, and the problem’s going to grow more and more.”
Some motels substandard
Beside the obvious challenges of living in a motel room for several months — shared beds, small quarters and limited or no access to laundry or a kitchen — the student residents sometimes suffer additional hardships posed by dilapidated and overcrowded establishments.
At least two group housing facilities have been closed by local building inspectors in recent years for unsafe conditions, violating maximum occupancy limits and other problems, prompting a call by some motel owners for increased regulation.
Local residents also complain about noise and trash at some motels populated by large numbers of international students.
Most recently, the Shady Nook Motel in the town of Delton was shut down for fire safety and other hazards. Residents were ordered to leave in late June after a Shady Nook resident reported sparks coming from a power connection outside.
An ensuing inspection revealed several problems with the electrical system and other issues, according to town of Delton Zoning Administrator Robert Roth.
The 22-unit motel, which offered group housing from May through October, wasn’t serving any international students this summer, but rented to 12 students last year and about 30 the year before that, according to owner Al Grieshop. He said foreign student workers expressed interest in lodging there this summer, but the motel was already full.
Although Grieshop admitted the motel had some violations, including power lines strung on trees, he disputed the motel was “run-down.”
“What does ‘run-down’ mean? Because it shows that it’s old?” he said, adding, “The people who were living here were happy to be living here.”
In August 2008, the Coachlight Motel in Wisconsin Dells lost its group lodging permit for overcrowded rooms, among other violations.
One room had eight occupants sleeping on four bunk beds, said Chris Tollaksen, assistant director of public works. Local ordinance requires 400 cubic feet of space per person, or between two and four people for a typical motel room, Tollaksen said.
In addition, the motel was “very run down,” had problems with mold and wasn’t maintaining fire extinguishers and smoke detectors properly, he said. The motel has fixed the problems and no longer offers group lodging, he said.
More regulation needed, some say
Some motel owners, however, say those who regulate group housing in the Dells area, including the city of Wisconsin Dells, the town of Delton and the village of Lake Delton, should do more to improve conditions. Swart, for example, provides common laundry and kitchen facilities for residents at his Dutch Mill and Kilbourn residence halls.
“I think (regulation of group housing) needs a lot of work,” Swart said. “Enforcement needs to be stepped up.”
Swart and other motel owners say they believe many of those who provide housing to international students are violating local safety and occupancies laws. He said much of the housing in the Dells area is “well below college student housing” in terms of quality.
In Lake Delton, the group housing ordinance stipulates that the first occupant of a room have at least 150 feet square feet of space and each additional occupant have at least 100 square feet.
Technically that means only one resident for each 200-square-foot motel room. But the Lake Delton Housing Committee often lets motels house two people per room if their establishment is clean with well-maintained smoke detectors, said Bob Wagner, Lake Delton’s building inspector.
This summer, for example, the Holiday Motel got an exception to house four people per 390-square-foot room because the motel is clean and well-kept, he said.
Other motel owners violate the regulations with relative impunity, Wagner said, because unless a complaint is lodged, they’re inspected only when they reapply for an annual license.
“I think a lot of motels are putting more kids in there than we allow, but they’re not going to let us know that,” Wagner said.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media. The Wisconsin Dells Events newspaper contributed to this report. Alec Luhn can be reached at aluhn *at* wisconsinwatch.org.