Former hotel employees embrace in the parking lot of the Presque Isle Inn and Convention Center on Jan. 13 during their last minute move out. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Employees who lived at the Presque Isle Inn & Convention Center reacted with anger and tears as they were forced to leave the building during Friday’s snow and sleet storm.

The hotel, where 25 employees and family members lived, abruptly closed Monday with little warning to staff or the city. Noting the building was unsafe, city officials sent letters to employees Wednesday to vacate the premises by 3 p.m. Friday

Having bought the place just over a year ago, owner Cang Quach had promised to bring the Presque Isle landmark back to its heyday, when it was a popular restaurant and night spot. Its closure leaves a large hole in a business landscape that the city has been working to reinvigorate, and launches former employees into an uncertain future.

“It’s not just a matter of we need to leave the hotel,” General Manager Jamie Gray said Friday, as employees packed their things into cars and moving trucks. “This was our home and everything we had here.”

Former hotel employees hastily pack their belongings in the parking lot of the Presque Isle Inn and Convention Center on Jan. 13 under freezing rain conditions. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

Quach called Gray on Sunday night, saying the hotel would be closed at midnight and that he couldn’t afford to do payroll anymore for his employees. He is preparing to purchase the Border Inn Casino in Baker, Nevada, and also owns Tower 64 in Trinidad, Colorado, Gray said.

She told the rest of the staff about the closure Monday morning, which is when Presque Isle officials also learned the news. 

Emotions were heavy as people cleared out their belongings. 

“When I was hired on, we were told by Cang and our general manager, Jamie, that we have on site housing, and I took it, and Cang said we’d never be homeless,” Tina Widdecombe said.

Widdecombe worked at the inn for 11 months. She never met Quach in person and only spoke with him over the phone.

She will stay with her son, but not many employees have family in the area, she said. Some will move out of state because this experience in Presque Isle has left them with such a bad taste.

She said the staff plan to fight back and are in talks with lawyers to file a class-action lawsuit against Quach.  

Former staff member Floid Bolstridge said he’ll be using the resources Aroostook County Action Program has given them to find housing. 

“It’s crazy. You’ve got to have a place to live before thinking about how to get a job,” Bolstridge said. “Everyone is trying. We are scrambling.”

The problem is worse because there’s little affordable housing in Presque Isle, he said.

Police cars show up in front of the Presque Isle Inn and Convention Center on Jan. 13 at around 3 p.m. to make sure former employees had vacated the property. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

Most of the former hotel employees will be staying at the Caribou Inn & Convention Center, while others will leave the city or perhaps the state in order to find better housing opportunities, Bolstridge said.

Machias Savings Bank is the property’s lienholder.

“Machias Savings Bank holds a mortgage on the property and is aware of the business closure. Machias Savings Bank has not foreclosed its mortgage at this time,” bank officials said Friday.

Presque Isle Code Enforcement Officer Tim St. Peter inspected the property on Tuesday. Due to existing violations and problems with the fire suppression system, the city declared the building unsafe and issued letters telling employees to vacate. 

Former employees said Friday that the city did not offer them help to relocate. 

An inspector with the fire marshal’s office noted 16 violations on Dec. 9, according to a report from the Maine Department of Public Safety in Augusta.

“The inspection was performed along with the Presque Isle code officials,” department spokesperson Shannon Moss said Friday.

A copy of the report was sent to the inn on Dec. 27.

Violations included missing ceiling tiles, nonworking emergency lights, exposed electrical wires and hanging fixtures, an elevator that needed an inspection and sprinkler system deficiencies, as well as a fuel tank room that was not cleared as required through the fire marshal’s office.

Gray said that two former staff members offered Gray and her assistant general manager a spare room until they could find a place to stay, and to take care of their combined six cats.

“Everybody is in a great deal of shock,” she said.

Presque Isle police officers were at the site Friday afternoon, along with city Fire Chief Darrell White and St. Peter to change the locks and to make sure everyone was out of the building.