Living

Family working to bring Two Notch's once-seedy Grand Motel full circle

The neon sign grabs the eyes of passers-by on Two Notch Road, then the words register and the incongruity hits - Grand Motel.

That one-story, brick motel was grand in the late 1950s, when it was built, complete with a swimming pool and air-conditioning in all 21 rooms. But it's as un-grand now as most of those former motels on the two-lane roads that used to teem with vacation traffic before the interstate highway system was built.

Maybe even un-grander. Unless you live there. Or own the place.

Then it's special. It's home. It's a family legacy.

"It's perfect," says Leroy Williams, 76, who has lived in a Grand Motel room for nine years. "It's decent. You can live here."

The Grand Motel at 3003 Two Notch Road is a living entity. It started life on the top of the world, struggled to stay relevant as it aged, sank to the depths of drug addiction and prostitution when nobody loved it, and, in the past two years, gained redemption in the embrace of family.

The Goldbergs - Bernard and Luba - bought the Grand Motel in the early 1970s; Luba ran it like a mother hen for three decades. They added a couple of two-story buildings with 20 efficiency apartments to cater to Fort Jackson visitors.

The motel began to slip in Luba Goldberg's later years, along with the neighborhood around it. The most precipitous fall came in the five years after her death, according to law enforcement officials and neighbors.

Now the next generation - Norman and Donna Goldberg - are giving up what should be the carefree post-children-at-home years to bring the motel back. Norman Goldberg, who was in semi-retirement taking care of other rental properties, at first says he's not sure why he does it, but deep down, he knows.

"I owe it to my mother," he says.

COMPARISONS DON'T MATCH UP

Let's get this out of the way. Yes, this is a guy named Norman, managing an old motel with a neon sign outside. Yes, there's an underlying mother theme. But the only true comparison to the movie "Psycho" is the horror that went on at the Grand Motel before Norman Goldberg took over.

"It was a hell hole," says Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, whose officers couldn't arrest people fast enough to clean out the riff-raff.

The problems stretch back to the 1980s, when Lott frequented the motel on the narcotics beat. The section of Two Notch Road within a couple miles of Beltline Boulevard was a rough neighborhood. A man was stabbed to death at the motel in 1999.

Luba Goldberg worked with law enforcement officers trying to get a handle on the problems, Lott says. A Holocaust survivor like her husband, she kept her hand in it almost until the day she died.

Not wanting to weigh down her son with the motel responsibilities, Luba Goldberg finally in August 2002 leased day-to-day operations of the motel to Roy Finley, who had been managing the motel for nearly a decade. She died four days later, at age 81, of a massive heart attack.

"I was left taking care of my father, who lived one year and one month after Mom died," says Norman Goldberg, 57. "I didn't want to spend much time (at the motel) because of the memories of my parents. I couldn't even drive by their home. I was in depression, and I didn't want to have anything to do with my parents."

For the next five years, his only real connection with the motel was collecting the monthly lease payment.

Police came by more often. Officers filed reports on 30 incidents at the motel in 2006, mostly trespassing, disorderly conduct and possession of crack cocaine. A man was shot to death in room 162 on Nov. 21, 2006. Another man survived being shot during a robbery attempt on Jan. 5, 2007.

Finley says he made repairs and put in a high-tech security system.

"I did the best that I could do to make the place a good place to live, but there was only so much I could do," Finley says. "I never owned it."

Then, on Oct. 1, 2007 - by coincidence, Luba Goldberg's birthday - Finley called Norman Goldberg at noon.

"He told me the rent was ready," Norman Goldberg says. "When I showed up at 1 p.m., he asked if I was ready for my money. I held my hands out, and he dropped the keys in them and took off."

Finley denies that's the way the hand-over happened, but acknowledges he gave up on the motel that day.

"It was a constant fight with drug dealers and prostitutes," Finley says. "Fifteen years of that was enough. That life, it's tough on you."

The motel was in bad shape physically, with leaking pipes, broken windows and a dangerous heating system, Norman Goldberg says. Worse yet, the motel's clientele was largely crackheads, drug dealers and prostitutes.

"I knew enough to know I didn't want to be in this business," he says. "I didn't think I had it in me.

"I stood at the side of the road and looked at the hotel and thought how easy it would be to take a bulldozer and knock this place down."

But he couldn't help wonder what his mother would have done or, worse yet, what she would have thought of him tearing down the place.

"I made a commitment to clean this place up," he says. "I owed my mother. I owed myself."

That first night was so crazy he wondered if he had made a mistake.

"Cars were coming into this place backed up, and they were leaving backed up," Norman Goldberg says. "There was a big hole in the fence out back, so people could walk in there. Half the windows were broken, boarded up.

"Women were standing on the second floor with breasts pushed over the railings. Cars would stop, doors would open a little. They'd hand something out and the door closes. It was like a drive-through drug mart. For a second, I thought I was in Amsterdam.

"I thought that was either the end of the line or a new beginning."

CLEANING HOUSE

The new beginning rose with the morning sun.

"I hid in the bushes and made a list of where all the activities were going on, and at 10 the next morning, I called every one of them and told them 'Eleven o'clock is checkout time. I won't call you again. If you're not out at 11, I'll call the police.'" Norman Goldberg says.

He's a stocky, soft-spoken guy with reading glasses often perched on top of his head. He's also a take-no-crap guy when he needs to be. Most of the criminal types at the motel took him seriously and cleaned out.

"The few people who were left here were clapping when the others left," Norman Goldberg says.

He went room to room, water was leaking from the second floor in one room. The toilet was stuffed with trash in another. Another room was full of mattresses.

"I shut down 10 rooms because I wouldn't have let my dog stay in them," he says.

He tried to begin repairs immediately, but found electricians and plumbers were reluctant to show up when he told them the address. Finally, a glass contractor ignored the reputation, showed up and replaced 47 windows.

Through the next few months, improvements were made to the motel, but the first sweep didn't get rid of all of the riff-raff. Drug users accustomed to making deals at the motel kept showing up.

Before the Goldbergs took over, drug dealers would knock on Williams' door almost every night. He saw one of the shootings out his front window.

Goldberg "came in and immediately said he was the owner and what he was going to allow and what he was going to disallow," Williams says. "I'd have been done gone if he hadn't come in. Everything is 1,000 percent better."

Goldberg put up barriers to help control the traffic coming by vehicle from Two Notch Road, but the foot traffic was still coming through the hole in the fence at the back of the property. He fixed the hole and put barbed wire on the top of the fence, but the hole returned within two days. Then he replaced the barbed wire with razor wire, and things began to turn around.

"It was three weeks into it before I let my wife on the property," Norman Goldberg says.

MAIN FOCUS IS SAFETY

Donna Goldberg is a petite woman with a classic fashion sense more suited to her day job - at bankruptcy court - than to working at the Grand Motel. But you'll find her behind the desk many weekend nights, helping her husband keep a handle on the 41 units.

"I didn't come out here the first couple of weeks," she says. "It was bad news. It was bad news."

Now she stops by the office nearly every weeknight and usually stays all night on Fridays. "If something's going to happen, it's on Friday night," she says.

She stands near the front door, waving to customers as they drive in and warning them to watch out for the motel cats - at least seven hang around. She's not just being friendly; she's checking on who's coming and going.

"Our main focus since we came here is safety," she says. "If you don't know who's here, you can't ensure safety. Most people appreciate that."

Some of the customers have sketchy backgrounds, but the clientele is mostly the working poor trying to survive to the next payday.

Each Monday, Donna Goldberg goes on the Web site for the Alvin Glenn Detention Center and checks the names of people booked that weekend for crimes in Richland County. It used to be a who's who of people who had stayed at the motel. Now, few familiar names show up, mostly people who have stayed a night or two ($40 a night).

About 60 percent of the customers live at the motel long-term, paying $720 a month for the studio apartments or $640 a month for the rooms. That's cheap when you consider it includes electricity, water, local phone service, cable TV, cleaning service and sheets and towels.

Counseling is free, too.

"It's like a big family," Donna Goldberg says. "They tell us about everything going on in their lives. They ask for advice."

Handyman Steve Vasquez has lived at the motel about eight months. After a rough day repairing heating ducts under an old house, he stopped by the office to settle his overdue tab. (The cameras monitoring the motel are computerized, but records are still kept by hand on the back of registration slips.)

"They know that I'm at least working and trying to catch up," Vasquez said after getting his payments up to date. "I love 'em to death. These are some of the coolest people I've ever met."

The Goldbergs gave the place a new coat of paint, replaced the heating system and put in tile floors. It's still not the Taj Mahal, but it's not a "hell hole" either.

They are trying to create a family atmosphere. On Halloween, they printed orange, paper jack-o-lanterns for people who wanted to give out candy to kids. The paper pumpkins were put on doors so kids knew where to stop. The Goldbergs also gave bags of candy to residents who couldn't afford to buy it themselves.

On Thanksgiving, the Goldbergs cooked three turkeys, feeding 30 people at the motel.

"It was so hectic, we forgot about the apple cobbler," Norman Goldberg says.

A week later, they finally gave up on eating all of the turkey and fed the leftovers to the cats.

Sheriff's patrols now drive through the motel property and often leave without stopping. Lott and Norman Goldberg talk regularly, sharing concerns like Lott used to do with Luba Goldberg.

"A lot of the people who have stayed there have had issues with crime and drugs, but the owners don't tolerate it now," Lott says. "They care about the people who are there."

Before the Grand Motel, Norman Goldberg's professional legacy could be found on school rooftops, where his company installed many of the big satellite dishes that hooked ETV to the state's classrooms. He had done well enough to retire to managing a few rental properties by his early 50s.

He could have simply closed the Grand Motel, sold the property for whatever he could get and moved on with life. He's willing to entertain offers now ($1.7 million anyone?), but he couldn't do that two years ago.

"Do I need this place? No," Norman Goldberg says. "But I've done a good job with it. Something was taken away from me, but now I've got it back."

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