Go Gopher

General manager Craig Larson says he'll do whatever it takes "to get Ma and Pa Kettle back in the Gopher."
Craig Lassig

Groundhogs around the country may have seen their shadows on February 2, but it wasn't until two weeks later that Minneapolis's most famous rodent faced its day of reckoning. On February 16 the Gopher Campus Motor Lodge, under a cloud of debt and bad PR, went dark with plans to hibernate until spring.

Best known for the 30-foot-high smiling critter towering over its bland concrete structure at I-35W and Fourth Street Southeast, the Gopher had been in trouble for a while. According to the Minneapolis Police Department, the motel at one point rated among the top 200 of the city's 200,000 addresses in sparking 911 calls: In 1996 and '97, says records officer Dave Rumpza, it logged nearly 120 calls each year.

The Gopher became fodder for TV newscasts last April, when its mascot was the backdrop for a high-profile drug bust. After three months of undercover surveillance, the Minnesota Gang Strike Force blasted into two rooms and, according to Strike Force Deputy Regional Commander John Boulger, found crack cocaine, marijuana, a gun, and a big pile of cash. The motel, says Boulger, seemed to be the base of operation for a drug-dealing enterprise.

The bust was "a wake-up call," says Dr. E.R. Salovich, a professor of orthopedics at the University of Minnesota who bought the motel in 1992 with Larry Hopfenspirger. Salovich, who grew up in the area and received both his undergraduate and medical degrees from the university, says the purchase was motivated by his involvement with the school's alumni association. "The purpose wasn't to make lots of money. We wanted the motel to serve a role with the U of M community and its surrounding residents."

Salovich says that after the bust, he and Hopfenspirger hastened to institute changes at the Gopher, many of them at the suggestion of the MPD's Community Crime Prevention/SAFE unit. Room rates went from $45 to $55; a fence was built, off-duty officers were hired, new lighting and cameras were installed. In addition, the motel instituted a policy under which anyone entering it--guest or visitor--had to show a photo ID, with the information logged on forms that went into the guest file. Staffers say police would regularly look through those logs and check the names for outstanding warrants.

Teresa Nelson, legal counsel with the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, says the Gopher may have gotten a little too cozy with Minneapolis's finest. "I find it outrageous that the police could run blanket warrant searches on the guest list," she says. "People should know that when they enter this motel, they give up some of their privacy rights. It doesn't seem to me to be a legitimate law-enforcement activity, even if it is a motel that's had problems in the past."

Boulger of the Strike Force says running random searches on hotel visitors would be unusual for his unit: "If I say, 'I'd like to see a registration card for Room 105,' 99 times out of 100, hotels comply. But I don't know any officer that would expect Embassy Suites to give you all their registration cards. It just isn't reasonable."

Gopher general manager Craig Larson, however, says he was willing to do whatever it took "to get Ma and Pa Kettle and their kids back in the Gopher." At 25, Larson--6'4", 220 pounds, short jock haircut, blue jeans and gopher-logo shirt--looks as if he'd walked straight out of the Williams Arena locker room. Indeed, he was on a basketball scholarship to the university's Crookston campus when he sustained a severe eye injury from a piece of candy thrown by a fan. He lost his scholarship, ended up dropping out of college, moved to Fargo to manage a truck stop and then to Fergus Falls to run a hotel. Now he's attacking the Gopher challenge with the all's-fair passion of an underdog coach.

Staffers say it was Larson who began stringently enforcing the Gopher's ID policy when he took over in October; he says he also went through the motel, took down every ceiling tile, and found drug paraphernalia in a number of rooms. Larson says there have been only five 911 calls from the hotel during his tenure, a figure the MPD confirms.

But by the time Larson arrived, the Gopher was facing another sort of trouble. A few months after the drug bust, Salovich and Hopfenspirger were called to a meeting with the Minneapolis license inspectors. The city had begun to question whether the owners had "control of the premises" and was considering revoking their hotel license. Nine months and a series of committee hearings later, on February 5, the City Council voted to pull the license--and, at the same time, to stay the decision if the Gopher agreed to either close its doors for 60 days or pay a $20,000 fine.

Hopfenspirger--who says the matter so far has cost him and Salovich $35,000 in legal fees--says the owners at first planned to pay the fine and stay open. But the new ID policy had caused the number of guests to drop to less than half what it was a year ago. On the day of the council meeting, the Gopher's paychecks were delayed because of insufficient funds. So Larson and his five staffers weren't surprised when Salovich and Hopfenspirger decided to save the $20,000 and close instead. When the motel reopens in April, says Hopfenspirger, it is likely to be as a Super 8 franchise. The mascot will stay, he adds, "if possible."

Larson says he and the motel's assistant manager will spend the next two months renovating all of the Gopher's 44 rooms; in between ripping out carpets, he also plans to mend fences with the neighbors. "This last week, I went to the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood group," says Larson. "First time anyone from the Gopher has attended one of their meetings. We're the pimple on their butt right now, so I went in and invited them over. And I think they sort of warmed up to me."

His boss, however, is less charitably disposed toward the Gopher's critics. To Hopfenspirger, the vote that closed his motel's doors "shows no reasonable problem-solving, just a punitive pointing finger and a very large fine."

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