Hilton Full? Stay at Scooter's Place!

Keeping Austin weird, or committing fraud?

Conor McLaughlin, aka Scooter Rocket
Conor McLaughlin, aka Scooter Rocket (Photo courtesy of Adam Wasch)

If you saw him dance on YouTube, you'd be tempted to laugh. Or maybe you'd be taken in by his earnestness. Meet Conor McLaughlin, aka Scooter Rocket: a dancing man on skates whose efforts to "Keep Austin Weird" include outlaw hosteling.

Scooter has frustrated the owners of the new Firehouse Hostel and Lounge Down­town at 605 Brazos. Using Facebook and fake online listings, Scooter poses as the Firehouse Hostel (and a slew of imaginary hostels), only to redirect the travelers he snags to his own South Austin apartment.

"I don't know how malicious he's being about this, versus being a really out-there guy who's doing things his own way," said in-progress Firehouse co-owner Kent Roth. (The Firehouse is scheduled to open this summer, featuring dormitory-style beds, private rooms, and shared kitchens, plus a bar to help social hostellers gets acquainted.) Roth and his partner, Collin Ballard, discovered their own photos on Scooter's spoofed Firehouse Facebook page, embellished with creative marketing ploys like an offer for a free tattoo with a three-night stay. A caption under a photo of Roth and Bal­lard calls them the "poster children" for Austin renewal, building a "swanky lounge with pricey drinks."

When Ballard contacted Austin police to complain, he was told the penal code only covers impersonation of people, not businesses. The case was reclassified as a potential fraud and suspended while Roth and Ballard pursue a possible private action. They have yet to speak to Scooter. "I thought about just talking to him," Ballard said, "but I don't know if we can talk sense into him or how much sense is there."

"I don't want to be known," Scooter, 31, said when I told him the Firehouse was onto him. "I created an anonymous war with [the Firehouse], not thinking they'd actually know who it was. I don't want my alternative lifestyle to be listed."

Yet Scooter has a collection of online music videos hosted on YouTube and Dailymotion. He's actually a pretty good singer. There are even (unsuccessful) audition videos for various reality TV shows, including FOX's So You Think You Can Dance. You know the clips of failed contestants broadcast for laughs? On his, Scooter deflects the ridicule of the show's judges with guilelessness, imploring the most harshly dismissive judge (dance choreographer Tyce Diorio) with: "Don't you think you want too much of the wrong thing?"

If he did meet Roth or Ballard, Scooter said he'd ask them what they think they're doing. "If they actually spoke to me, I'd ask them, 'Hey, what are you guys about, if you're not about streamlining Austin?' I don't want a homogenous Austin. And what are they – the Facebook police?"

Scooter's apartment is located just north of Ben White Boulevard in a dramatically lower-rent neighborhood than the Firehouse. Feral kittens slumber in its courtyard, which features a community garden, murals, and a new wood-slab painted dance floor. This is where Scooter operates his own "Rusty Railway Hostel." It's a good bus ride (or three) from Downtown.

"It's 'pirating,'" Scooter says. "People know when they speak to me on the phone that I'm completely different. People aren't obliged to go with me. I tell them: 'Here's an alternative. You can stay Downtown and be at a party house, or you can come and see what Austin's all about.' I push the bohemian side of Austin."

That isn't to say Scooter doesn't appreciate the allure of mainstream attractions. Capitalizing on the throng of visitors to South by Southwest and other Austin festivals, Scooter charges $60 or more a night for a dorm-room bunk, according to one guest's online review. Scooter says he operates on donations and usually takes in about $20 a night per bed. (He also performs freelance computer repairs.)

Based solely on the contrast between Downtown and Scooter's neighborhood, some guests might want to hail a cab immediately upon arrival, were there any around. But those aren't the guests Scooter wants anyway. "I host a lot of independent thinkers," he said. "These are not the ones that are just, like, 'Hey, I've never trusted anyone before.' I host, let's say, the Occupiers."

Liz Fritchman, 24, travelled to Austin earlier this year with a friend from Phila­delphia, later posting a Yelp review: "There were no other guests, the house smelled weird, and when we told him we would get back to him he spent 10 minutes convincing us that we should stay there [because] we seemed 'indie' and shouldn't go to the more mainstream places."

"I think he truly believes what he's about, and I think his rationale is good," Liz told the Chronicle. "I mean, everybody should support local businesses – but he's a nut about it. It wasn't a situation where you felt danger. It was unbelievably freaky and uncomfortable."

Ballard and Roth admit that Scooter hasn't exactly harmed the Firehouse much, but they're still frustrated. "There's a lot you have to do to be a legit business, and it's in the interest of the people who are going to come here to stay," Roth said. "You have fire inspections and health inspections. You also have to pay taxes, you have to be zoned properly, and all that kind of stuff. It is a little annoying that [Scooter] is operating without all that. And doing it under false pretenses."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Firehouse Hostel and Lounge, Conor McLaughlin, Scooter Rocket, hostel, Rusty Railway Hostel, Downtown, South Austin, Kent Roth, Collin Ballard, fraud, Facebook

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