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Owner of Fort Drum Vehicle Storage, motels owes $100,000 in back taxes

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JoAnn Sanchez-Norquist still touts Fort Drum Vehicle Storage in television ads as though the local business is not going through turbulent financial times.

And most recently she had a photographer from Google Business Photos take photos of the interior offices of the vehicle storage business in Pamelia, even though the West Main Street warehouse that the company once owned will go up for sale at a public auction Wednesday.

But Ms. Sanchez-Norquist faces other financial troubles. She owes $92,443 in back taxes on five other properties. In July, she and her husband, John S. Norquist, lost the warehouse at 753 Rear W. Main St. because they failed to pay $17,776.37 in back taxes and the city took it over.

City officials insisted they did not know that the Evans Mills woman owned four small motels and another storage facility in nearby communities and that the properties are delinquent in municipal, school district and Jefferson County taxes.

It just seemed odd to city officials that the couple would risk losing the vehicle storage company for not paying their taxes when, on the surface, it looked like a viable business that served Fort Drum soldiers away on deployment.

“You knew something else was going on,” City Manager Sharon A. Addison said after hearing last week about the financial problems with the other properties.

Much of the tax delinquency includes $40,830 owed on Fort Drum Studio-Tels, the former Redwood Motor Lodge at 24097 and 24103 Route 12 in the town of Watertown. The other properties are: Sir Robert Peel Motor Lodge, 44810 Route 12 in the town of Alexandria, for $12,058; the Hotis Motel, 23442 Route 37 in the town of Pamelia, for $15,008; the former Gunns Corners Inn, 29613 Route 12 in the town of Clayton, for $13,194; and Fort Drum Storage, a series of small storage units at 22271 Teal Drive in Pamelia, for $11,353.

County Attorney David J. Paulsen said that Ms. Sanchez-Norquist worked out payment installment plans for the unpaid taxes on some of those properties but that she “is not current” on them, so they are in default. The county intends to initiate foreclosure proceedings, he said.

After falling behind on the payments, the couple also was forced to put together a new installment plan with the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency and the Watertown Local Development Corp. for $40,000 loans they took out to start the vehicle storage company, JCIDA Comptroller Lyle V. Eaton said. Owing $75,059 for both loans, the owners now must pay double payments, interest and late fees monthly until they’re paid off next July, he said.

Watertown attorney Andrew N. Capone, who is representing the couple, said they are still trying to save Fort Drum Vehicle Storage. The couple intends to take care of all of the back taxes, he said.

“It’s all going to be pretty well dealt with,” Mr. Capone said.

They have put together a business plan, he said, adding they want to concentrate on the vehicle storage aspect of the business because it’s what they know best. Since the issue came up with the warehouse, the owners said they have been using buildings in Oswego and Syracuse to store vehicles.

The “unproductive properties” are up for sale, he said. That will bring in “an influx of capital” when they are sold and help get the business back on better financial footing, he said.

In explaining what happened, Mr. Capone said the couple overextended themselves by buying so much property, but he also blamed the downturn in the national economy for their troubles. The couple was out of town Friday and unavailable to comment, Mr. Capone said.

Ms. Sanchez-Norquist started acquiring properties in 2005 with the purchase of the Clayton site for $75,000, but then went on to spend nearly $1.5 million on the others in 2007 and 2008. Some of the properties are listed in Ms. Sanchez-Norquist’s maiden name or married name, while others used different corporation names.

Last April, the state Department of Health closed 17 of the 23 units at the Hotis Motel after the facility’s septic tank failed and sewage was leaking to the surface of the apartments’ floors. In June, the Pamelia Town Council agreed she could form a sewer district at the site for a cost of $3,000 and connect to a Development Authority of the North Country sewer line there.

That hasn’t happened and the units remain unusable, Town Supervisor Lawrence C. Longway said.

Ms. Sanchez-Norquist and her CFO, Charlene Williams, continue to run the two storage businesses out of an office at the Hotis Motel. Dozens of vehicles — including SUVs, a Cadillac, a Ford Thunderbird and a Volvo — are parked all over the property, even though only a handful of apartments are rented out. A tenant said Friday she did not know who owned the vehicles and surmised they might be from soldiers storing them there.

Although Ms. Sanchez-Norquist purchased the Gunns Corners Inn seven years ago, the motel has remained vacant since then. She wanted to convert the motel into apartments but failed to obtain permits from the town, so she was unable to proceed with those plans, zoning officer Henry R. LaClair said.

“I haven’t seen any activity up there at all in all of these years,” Mr. LaClair said.

Made up of three rows of buildings, Fort Drum Studio-Tels has been turned into apartments, with fewer than half occupied.

Lawrence R. Vanscoy moved into his one-room unit that does not contain a stove or refrigerator in February after moving here from out of state. He had to replace the door’s dead-bolt lock because the old one did not work. His unit also has had some plumbing problems.

An indoor pool at the site has been abandoned. A drainage pipe is loose on one of the buildings. The roof on another building looks as if it needs repairs.

A maintenance man worked at the facility until July, about the time the city took over the West Main Street warehouse, Mr. Vanscoy said.

“They just don’t take care of it at all anymore,” he said, noting there are often tenants fighting or arguing and sheriff’s deputies must be called.

On Wednesday night, a woman was arrested on a first-degree assault charge after allegedly stabbing her husband in the neck with a knife following a domestic argument. The man returned to the apartment later with a bandage, but deputies would not allow him inside the apartment, Mr. Vanscoy said.

“We try to take of each other here,” he said.

The town of Alexandria has not received any code complaints about the Robert Peel Motor Lodge and it remains a working motel, according to the town assessor’s office. Mr. Capone said the motel is the only profitable property and it will not go up for sale.

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