July 28 2010 12:00 AM

The Deluxe Inn once put the ‘ho’ in ‘hotel.’ Can the site now put the ‘hot’ in ‘hotspot’? The revitalization begins this weekend — with the help of a few graffiti artists

The phrase “hotel art” usually brings to mind nondescript watercolors and oil paintings of forest lakes. But that term will take on a different meaning this weekend at the former Deluxe Inn on the edge of REO Town.

Approximately 35 artists have been invited to inject a blast of color into the drab, decaying property before its scheduled demolition sometime in September.

The Deluxe, at I-496 and Washington Street, could use a bit of touching up; to quote the old TLC song, it’s “damn unpretty.” Hundreds of windows are boarded up to discourage vandals. Many of the wooden numbers on the doors of the rooms are broken or missing. The corridors look like they were painted with rancid cream; once occupied by transients and junkies, they are now home to earwigs, spiders and ants. Torn-out cables litter the weed-infested parking lot, and the staircases and balcony railings are corroded and, in some spots, eaten away altogether.

For years, the 118 rooms of the Deluxe were frequently occupied by hookers and often visited by police officers. A few recurring motifs run through newspaper stories about the Deluxe’s final days: “prostitution bust,” “assault,” “murder,” “drug paraphernalia,” “body found.” After years of embarrassing many REO Town residents and infuriating many more, the Deluxe was closed down last summer after the owner was unable to pay his tax bill; last September, the Ingham County Land Bank purchased the site for $400,000.

Looking over the grungy grounds of the Deluxe last week, Land Bank Chairman Eric Schertzing saw “a place where a lot of bad things happened.” But, through the eyes of a developer, it’s also a location that could eventually be used as housing for Cooley Law School students, or perhaps a retail space or a restaurant.

The motel’s parking lot is only a few steps away from the river. “You could have a patio or a deck down there,” Schertzing said, pointing to the riverbank.

Schertzing envisions the property being converted into a mixed-used structure that would boost REO Town’s profile as a haven for creativity. Bringing in painters and graffiti artists for a couple of days of what Schertzing calls “creative destruction” is a first step in the process.

“I don’t spend a lot of time looking at graffiti art,” Schertzing admitted, with a smile. “Some of it is great — but some of it is just tagging, and people making trouble.”

But Schertzing said he’s eager to see what comes out of the Deluxe endeavor, and he gives much of the credit for the idea to Joe Manzella, vice chairman and co-founder of Accelerate Lansing and manager of regional programs at Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

“I was looking for a good service project,” Manzella said. “I had just been planning to move to REO Town and I was looking for a project that would be art-related.”

Manzella knew about the motel’s sordid history and thought the painting party would be an opportunity to brighten up one of the city’s dark corners.

“This being such a bad, awful site, I feel like Lansing should reclaim it before we let it go,” he said. “Let’s have the community take it back and say ‘this is ours’ before we let it go. It’s about recognizing the past instead of sweeping it under the rug.”

In addition to local artists, painters from Grand Rapids, Detroit and Chicago have also received invitations to help out, which should result in a range of styles.

“As I’m learning, each of these cities has a different style: You could almost describe it as fonts for graffiti,” Manzella said. “L.A. graffiti is definitely different from New York graffiti and Detroit graffiti is different from Chicago graffiti.”

Although Manzella doesn’t claim to be a graffiti expert — “I play the violin — that’s my connection to the arts,” he said, with a chuckle — he does appreciate it.

“It is kind of tragic that we have to associate an artform with crime,” he said. “After talking to some of these artists we have coming out, to associate what they do with crime is ridiculous. It’s time to start a community conversation about where to put this art.”

Manzella points to “The Rock” on the Michigan State University campus, which is regularly painted and repainted by students to advertise events or promote Greek activities.

“If you give people lines to color within, they’re going to do that,” he said. “We’ve all grown up with that since kindergarten.”

There are also a few guidelines in place for the Deluxe project, Manzella said. Most important, you have to have been invited to participate: “We just want to keep it to a dull roar in terms of who’s gonna be there. We don’t want everyone with a spray paint can showing up.”

The public will, however, be welcome to visit the Deluxe for a viewing in August, during which “we’ll be showcasing the art and having conversations about the development of REO Town,” Manzella said.

Shortly afterward, the Deluxe will be turned over to the Fire Department, which will torch parts of the building for training exercises.

So no matter how the project turns out, everybody wins, according to Manzella. “It’s free, we’re not doing anything that’s going to hurt anyone, and even if it doesn’t look good, we’re tearing it down within a month anyway.”

Like Schertzing, Manzella wants to see REO Town transform itself into an artists’ community.

“I only discovered REO Town a couple of months ago,” Manzella said. His car was in the shop for repairs, and Manzella had to take a bus that took him through REO Town; it was love at first sight.

“You see the treasure of the buildings, and the river that surrounds it all — REO Town is like a little peninsula,” Manzella said. “I started thinking, ‘What if we got that place to its full potential?’ And we’re going to.

“The arts kind of define our society. If we don’t appreciate the arts, we don’t appreciate ourselves.”

Even before the artists move in on the Deluxe, there are signs of revitalization. As he passed by a patch of dirt in front of the motel last week, Schertzing noticed something exciting: a scattering of bright orange mums had popped up.

“Look at that!” he said, and seconds later the former farmboy from Stockbridge was pulling out weeds from around the flowers and picking up an empty liquor bottle and a cracked plastic tub someone had tossed into the flowerbed.

The Deluxe may soon be gone, but the mums will almost certainly live on.

“These are very easy to transplant,” Schertzing said, with a smile.