Allowing larger signs at a local intersection might seem a small thing — but could be a major boost to overall economic-development and tourism efforts, speakers at a public hearing said Thursday night.
“I think it is only good business,” said Surry Economic Development Partnership President Todd Tucker, one of several citizens and officials addressing the matter during a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting. “I think it’s the way to go,” Tucker added of a proposal affecting business development at the intersection of U.S. 601 and Interstate 74 in the southwest portion of Mount Airy.
The commissioners are considering whether to OK an amendment to city zoning regulations that would allow taller and larger signs at that location than are now permitted. This is in order for them to be seen by — and attract — traffic from the interstate. Thursday’s public hearing was required as part of the approval process.
While the proposal was triggered by plans of the Sheetz convenience store chain to locate an outlet at the intersection, other speakers said it would be good for the city as a whole. The Sheetz development alone represents an investment of several million dollars, according to Thursday night’s discussion.
“I think this is a very positive change that we should support as a community,” said Joseph Harris, a Mount Airy resident who also spoke on the issue. All those who offered comments at the hearing were in favor of the amendment.
Harris additionally addressed wording in the proposal that would safeguard appearance and prevent sign-related abuses, with Sheetz and other businesses required to apply for a conditional-use permit for any signage that deviates from present rules.
“This is not a blank check for people to build any kind of sign they want in that area.”
Betty Ann Collins, the president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, said loosening the sign restrictions could not only aid the Sheetz project, but other city businesses desiring to tap into the interstate traffic. It represents about 17,000 vehicles, and 25,000 potential customers, on a daily basis.
“We have all this traffic just passing us,” Collins said. “We’re excited about this interstate finally giving travelers a reason to take the exit.”
The chamber official said continuing to draw more tourists is a desired goal for Mount Airy. “In order to do that we have to get them off the interstate,” Collins said in relation to the signage amendment, which she thinks could lead to major growth around the I-74/U.S. 601 interchange.
It is “a key to developing that entire area out there,” Collins said.
Tucker, the economic-development official, added in his remarks during the public hearing that the community is in need of “prudent” ways to be business-friendly — “this gives us the ability to do that.”
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said at one point Thursday night that the city government wants to do just that. “We are here to help every business do the best they can to survive.”
While most of the hearing content focused on the potential to help the local business community as a whole, the desire to benefit Sheetz also took center stage at times. The upcoming store was praised as a positive addition to Mount Airy that will offer a lunch counter, gasoline discounts and other amenities.
“I think it will be a very good improvement to our city,” said Harris.
Another citizen who favored the proposal was Sam Holder, owner of the land where Sheetz will build its store, who said he also was speaking as a citizen at large.
“I think we all have a vested interest in their success here,” Holder said of Sheetz. “As a community member and a citizen, I think we should put ordinances in place that make it easier for business.”
Without the sign regulations being changed, the future of any entity located at the I-74/U.S. 601 intersection could be in question. “We are sure Sheetz is going to be a success,” Collins said, “but we need to help them as much as we can.”
Martin Collins, the city’s community-development coordinator, said the affected location is hampered by topography in terms of businesses on U.S. 601 not being visible from the interstate — hence the need for tall signs.
“I-74 sits considerably higher than U.S. 601,” Collins said. Travelers on that highway who desire to buy gas or food are “reluctant to exit unless (they) can be assured that the business is near the exit.”
The community-development director also mentioned that the proposed amendment is limited to the one intersection and not signs in other parts of town. “This language only impacts that area — about a 2,000-foot circle around that interchange.”
However, Gary Atkins, another hearing speaker, asked if similar changes could be made to accommodate businesses in additional areas of the city which are “in a hole,” and was told that is a possibility.
“It would be a conditional-use opportunity for other businesses,” City Attorney Hugh Campbell said.
Commissioner Jon Cawley said those who seek similar variances should go the same route as Sheetz officials, which begins with a request to the Mount Airy Planning Board. “This did not originate with the Planning Board,” Cawley said of the proposal at hand. “The Planning Board was approached.”
The commissioners, who have expressed support for the amendment, did not vote on the sign proposal Thursday night, but will act during an upcoming meeting.
Mount Airy officials did take action on another matter that was the subject of a public hearing Thursday night, after being told the vote might expedite the receiving of grant funding.
The commissioners approved an update to the Surry County Hazard-Mitigation Plan, which is aimed at protecting citizens from any kind of disaster that might occur, such as floods, tornadoes and others.
“This plan is one of the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) requirements for the county to have,” Surry EMS Director John Shelton explained Thursday night. He said hazard-mitigation plans were a by-product of Hurricane Katrina.
He said the local plan, originally adopted about seven years ago, is updated periodically with new information about the community’s level of preparedness to lessen the effects of any catastrophe.
Shelton added that having the document in place improves the chances of receiving FEMA grants that would aid various emergency functions locally.
When Commissioner Steve Yokeley asked about including population information from the 2010 Census, instead of that from 2000 — which the plan now contains — Shelton said doing so would delay a federal approval process by about six months. This could threaten grant opportunities arising in the meantime, he said.
Given the urgency of the situation, the commissioners approved the updated hazard-mitigation plan 5-0.
“We don’t want to miss out on any grant funding, that’s for sure,” Mayor Deborah Cochran said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.