LONG BEACH — Before the April drug raid, Tony Merrill’s downtown entertainment complex had two sets of customers. In good weather, tourists lined up to ride mopeds and go-carts. The other customers visited in any kind of weather, but rarely stayed for more than a few minutes.
Now, there are no customers of any kind, but that could change soon. Mayor Jerry Phillips says a member of the Merrill family wants to reopen the businesses. However, the new operator will have to fix long-running safety issues and code violations first, according to Phillips.
Crimes n’ carts
Nearby residents and business-owners knew there was something fishy about Merrill’s go-cart, moped rental and bumper car businesses, which occupy a city block at the corner of Sid Snyder Boulevard and Pacific. It was hard to miss the steady stream of rough-looking characters who trekked up and down California Street to the Moped shop, sometimes more than once a day. Police knew too, but it took longer than they would have liked to find an informant willing to purchase meth and heroin from Merrill and his former girlfriend, Doreen Morris.
On April 4, investigators finally had enough evidence to search Merrill’s businesses and home. The raid allegedly turned up cash, meth, heroin, pills and a stolen motorcycle. Since then, police have also linked Merrill to a major Ocean Park burglary. They suspect him of providing equipment and financing to the burglars, who were busted when they tried to sell about $15,000 in stolen guns to an undercover cop. The case is still under investigation, according to Pacific County Prosecutor Mark McClain.
Merrill disappeared after his parents paid $25,000 to release him from jail. There is a now a nationwide warrant for his arrest, and they stand to be held liable for the entire $250,000 if he does not turn up.
New Merrill on the block
In his absence, another member of the family has stepped up: his sister-in-law, Julie Merrill, president of Apollo Mopeds in Ocean Shores.
“Julie seems to be very reputable. She seems to have a good head on her shoulders,” Phillips said on July 10. He, City Administrator David Glasson and Building Inspector Matt Bonney met with Merrill about a month ago to discuss the possibility of re-opening the businesses.
Julie Merrill could not be reached for comment.
State records show Vancouver residents Robert and Eldora Merrill opened Long Beach Mopeds, along with an Ocean Shores amusement business and an investment company, in the mid-1980s. They have operated the local go-cart business since at least 1991. Over the last two decades, the Merrills’ children and other relatives took an increasingly active role in starting and running various enterprises, including go-cart tracks in Longview and Vancouver. Julie Merrill has helped run the family empire for almost two decades. Tony Merrill appears to have taken over management of the Long Beach businesses in about 2005.
The family has started at least 16 parent corporations since the 1980s. Some of their properties and businesses, including the ones in Long Beach, have been transferred between owners and corporations numerous times, making it challenging to piece together a complete history of their business dealings.
In 2011, they transferred ownership of the downtown Long Beach properties to the “Merrill Partnership.” This partnership consists of Robert, Eldora, and Julie Merrill, their daughter-in-law. However, Tony Merrill probably operated the businesses on his own — the two elder Merrills and Julie Merrill told city officials they were mostly unaware of the problems at the Long Beach complex.
“[Julie] was appalled with how the place looked,” Phillips said.
Disrepair and disrepute
At the height of tourist season, the windows of the moped shop are boarded up and there are knee-high weeds growing through the cracks in the asphalt. The rental bikes that once lined the sidewalk are now covered up with tarps.
It shocks some tourists to see a Long Beach institution in disarray, the mayor said, but there were serious problems well before the businesses closed. In fact, the city, the state Department of Labor and Industries and the County PUD had all been pressuring Tony Merrill to clean up his act.
In a May 2015 letter, the city cited him for piles of lumber, tires, scrap metal and “junk,” including old shopping carts. Officials had received complaints, and were concerned the piles were a safety hazard as well as an eyesore.
Phillips, who was a councilman before he became Mayor in January 2016, said Merrill established a pattern of partially complying when the city pressured him.
“He would clean a little bit up, and it would go back to the way it was,” he said.
The city imposed a “stop work order” in February 2016 when he installed buildings that did not meet city standards. A month later, the city suspended his business license for numerous ongoing violations, including piles of “broken, rusty” bicycles and mopeds, a collection of junk cars, and “rags, batteries, trash, tires” and other litter. The landscaping and fencing also violated city standards.
He got his license back several days later, but Merrill was ordered to keep working on cleanup. In June, the city filed a case against him in municipal court for lingering violations. In October, Bonney, the building inspector, gave Merrill a list of 26 things he needed to do to keep his license. Among them, removing weeds, garbage and stagnant water, fixing broken equipment and faulty wiring, and getting rid of unauthorized storage buildings.
Citing “multiple areas of unsafe wiring,” Labor and Industries in November ordered the PUD to disconnect Merrill’s property from the utility service “as soon as possible.” During the raid six months later, officers learned Merrill had been running the moped building off of generators.
The future of the property and the business are still uncertain, Phillips said. He thinks Julie Merrill will only take over if she can negotiate a satisfactory lease with Robert and Eldora Merrill, but at least one potential deal with them has already fallen through.
“Someone negotiated with the parents for several hours, but didn’t come to an agreement,” Phillips said.
At the meeting last month, “We gave her a list of things that have be done prior to opening, a list of things for six months, and for 12 months,” Phillips said. Immediate tasks included removing some big fuel and oil tanks.
“I believe the moped building cannot be occupied until repairs have been done to it,” he added.
A new owner might also have to factor Merrill’s debts into the bargain. Phillips said Merrill stopped paying taxes on his businesses about two years ago. And according to county records, the Merrill Partnership currently owes a little under $10,000 in property tax.
A danger-free future?
The mayor acknowledged that some locals, including a man who started renting mopeds from a nearby storefront after the raid, are not happy that the businesses could reopen. However, Phillips said the city can’t regulate competition between businesses. His research on Julie Merrill’s past business practices hasn’t turned up any “red flags.”
“She seems to be pretty straightforward,” Phillips said.
Long Beach leaders consulted with an attorney, who told them they can set conditions for reinstating the business license, but they can’t deny it based on Tony Merrill’s record or reputation.
“We can pull the license for different conditions, but as a city we can’t judge who you are and say, ‘We won’t let you have a business license,’” Phillips explained.
He said Long Beach officials have heard from “six or seven” other parties who were interested in buying the property.
“It would be nice to have someone take it over and get it open again, but I would like to see them do a first-class job, and not have it run down, because it takes up a whole city block. That’s the first place you see when you come into town,” Phillips said. “It should be a place where kids can come and have a safe time, and not be in danger.”
NEXT WEEK — Where are they now: We’ll take a look at the major and minor players in this story and report on where they are in terms of the criminal-justice system.