This gritty ex-con rebuilt his life. Now, he's trying to rebuild the Bergmann

The Bergmann Hotel may have found its savior in a gritty ex-con and recovering addict who hopes to turn the blighted, century-old building into a symbol of redemption.

 

As a child, Charles Cotten Jr.’s hero was Wyatt Earp, the archetypal good guy gunslinger of the Wild West. Cotten’s appearance suggests the opposite.

He strolls the halls of the Bergmann sipping from a black mug stamped with a skull and cross bones. He’s an amateur tattoo artist with a certificate — and the ink — to prove it. He wears two crosses and an anchor pendant around his neck and at least one ring on almost every finger.

He hides his blue eyes behind blue reflective sunglass lenses and wears his thin blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. He keeps a beard reminiscent of an unkempt Lemmy Kilmister. When he gets a call, the song “Ghost Riders in the Sky” echoes through the hotel halls as his ringtone.

“Ain’t nothing orthodox about me,” Cotten frequently admits, and that’s exactly why he thinks he’s got a shot at turning the derelict hotel around.

Bergmann owner James Barrett hired Cotten to manage the hotel about four months ago. Cotten’s plan of attack was simple. Step one: “Clean up the people.” Step two: “Clean up the building.”

The Bergmann has changed management several times over the past few years. Many managers before Cotten have failed — some spectacularly. In April, two hotel residents told the Empire that they had been bear sprayed by one of the former managers, whom they claimed was “high on something” at the time.

According to Barrett, Cotten was “given a tall order.” So far, he hasn’t used bear spray to whip the building’s tenants into shape. That’s primarily because he spent the first couple months of his tenure as manager exorcising the building’s roughest residents.

“I come in and started getting the riffraff out, started getting the thieves and the drugs out,” Cotten said, proudly explaining that he has removed about a dozen residents so far. “I run ‘em the hell off, and I’d do it any day of the week.”

As a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Cotten has very little patience for drug dealers. The 50-year-old manager once lost a 30-year sobriety token after he was pressured by a peer to use again.

“If you slip up one time, it’ll have ya, and it’ll have ya hard,” he said.

He has banned the possession of drugs and alcohol in the building, and he does his best to make sure people follow the rules. That’s been easier since he evicted some of the dealers who were living in the building, which has functioned as a refuge for heroin and meth users and pushers in the past, he said.

For years, James Barrett has largely been missing from the picture. He told the Empire recently that he fell sick with an illness a couple of years ago that prevented him from keeping an eye on his hotel. He wouldn’t describe his illness further.

With the owner absent, the hotel — which Barrett said has been seedy since he bought it 15 years ago — really fell off.

It became a dormitory for drug users and people bordering on homelessness, attracting people who might have otherwise stayed in the Glory Hole, downtown’s homeless shelter, if it didn’t require sobriety.

“When I came here after not having been in the building in an extremely long time, it broke my heart,” Barrett said. “It went downhill so fast once I got sick. You wouldn’t believe how fast a property can just become a disaster.”

When Cotten took over the 46-room building, he said it was almost at capacity, but many of the people living there were squatters. Now, the building has about 20 residents, all of whom are on the straight and narrow, or at least they’re getting that way quickly, Cotten said.

He doesn’t mind the building’s bad reputation, which it earned primarily due to its denizens. In fact, he hopes to embrace people who society at large has shunned. Out of the Bergmann, Cotten runs a program of his own invention called “Choices.” The goal of the program is to reduce recidivism rates and curb addiction.

“I want to show the community that things can change as well as people because a lot of people gave up on this place,” he said. “If a person wants to kick a habit, they can do it right here in one of these rooms with one hell of a support group.”

Cotten has no formal training in addiction counseling, but he does have experience, which he says matters “a lot more than a fancy degree.” In addition to being a recovering addict, he is a convicted felon with a rap sheet that includes aggravated assault, manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine, and committing a lewd act in the presence of a child. He specified the lewd act charge stemmed from an incident when a child walked in on him and his wife having sex on a living room couch.

After he finished his last stint in prison about a decade ago, Cotten decided to start Choices to help others avoid the cycle of recidivism in which he spent much of his life. He tried to start it several places in the South, where he lived until last year when he moved to Juneau. But the program didn’t “grab roots” until the Bergmann.

About a dozen hotel residents, including Brock McCourt, are a part of the program. Most of them have previous felony convictions or drug addictions — or both — and have had a difficult time finding a cheap, stable living situation free of bad influences. In exchange for a discounted rent, the participants in Choices are helping Cotten restore the Bergmann.

McCourt, a recovering meth addict, works two jobs on top of the chores he does for Choices. He also works construction and in a funeral home. He is currently training to become a mortician, and he said that living in the Bergmann has helped provide some stability in his life.

That’s exactly what both Cotten and Barrett hope the Bergmann will offer for all of its residents someday soon.

“It’s not going to be the Ritz Carlton; it’s just not,” Barrett said. “But my hope is that it can be a safe, clean space.”

“The main thing is that the Bergmann is headed somewhere that it needs to be, and that’s up,” Cotten added as he began to tear up. “These people can actually be people, and they deserve that chance.”

He wiped his eyes and put his sunglasses back on. He had to get back to work.

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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