Historic compromise reached

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Both sides of the controversy regarding an amendment to the city sign ordinance resolved Tuesday to work together to find a way to revitalize downtown Demopolis.

Local property and business owners attended a “called meeting” held last night by the Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission in City Hall. The commission has proposed an amendment, which prescribes the type of signage that can be used in downtown and in other historic districts in the city.

As a result of Tuesday’s discussion, property owners will give their ideas and criticisms of the amendment to Jay Shows, executive director of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce. Shows will forward that information to the preservation commission, and it will come back with a new version of the ordinance.

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As it is currently written, the amendment is opposed by owners of local sign companies and many downtown business and property owners.

“The ordinance is way too restrictive without them having input into it,” said Jay Shows, executive director of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce. In addition, some of the building owners “don’t like the idea that the commission has the final say.” Brian Brooker, chairman of the preservation commission, announced Tuesday night that the amendment could be written to allow an appeal of a commission decision through the city planning commission and then the city council.

“There isn’t any problem that working together we can’t solve,” said Demopolis Mayor Austin Caldwell in his opening comments remarks.

“We all need guidance to get where we want to go – which is a beautiful downtown,” said business owner Dan Wilson. The amendment is confusing, he said, “and the more I read it the more confused I got.” Wilson was intimidated by the regulations. He would like to see drawings depicting what the commission envisons. “You bring me a picture of Colony Office Products, in which you think is appropriate, then I say that’s probably doable.”

Doug Null, a critic of the amendment, said it takes away a business owner’s right to advertise. He is opposed to another ordinance. “What’s appropriate to you is not appropriate to me.”

“We already do have one of the strictest…ordinances as far as signs is concerned in this area,” said Richard Price, the owner of another sign company. The city has already lost businesses from Atlanta and Pensacola, he aid, which had planned to locate in Demopolis due to the current sign and landscaping regulations.

Horticulturist Amanda Smith, a member of the preservation commission, said the landscaping ordinance is intended to offer a level of security for the property owner. “If you invest this money in a building, the people next door are not going to be able to do whatever they want to,” she said. “They are going to have to do appropriate things in their buildings too, and that raises property values and it brings new businesses in.

“You might lose a business, but statistics show it does revitalize areas.”

“What we have here are historic buildings, turn of the century structures,” Brooker said. “…Each of these buildings were designed with a specific aesthetic that made its design successful.

“…What’s been done so far

– as far as downtown revitalization goes – has not been successful. What we’re trying to do is show you what has been successful in every community that doing it. We have a historic downtown; it’s what defines the character of Demopolis.”

“The biggest sign we’ve got to worry right now around town is the sign that says ‘For Sale,'” Wilson said. “That’s our biggest problem.” Downtown businesses need direction, he said. “You’ve got to come up with something better than this to show us (the commission’s plan to revitalize downtown).”

“We need to pay more attention to trying to identify the types of businesses that would be viable in a downtown area,” said property owner Thomas Bell. He would like to see businesses such as a sandwich shop.

“I can’t tell you how much a faade means,” councilman Woody Collins said of his wife Joy’s downtown business, the Mustard Seed. “Some little lady from Tuscaloosa will come in and say ‘we just happened to stop by here and this was the cutest looking place to stop.’

“She didn’t come in looking for a price; she didn’t come in looking for a product. She saw a faade; she saw a look.”

Dorothy Williams, a member of the preservation commission and also the president of the Marengo County Historical Society, took offense of past comments that the commission was acting like a Gestapo with the sign regulations. The commission members are unpaid volunteers, she said. “We’re just all working for the betterment of Demopolis. There’s a lot of antagonism towards us that should be.”

Bert Rosenbush asked that the property owners not condemn the commission out right. “Let’s don’t do anything to sink the ship. Let’s keep it going.” He talked about past plans for the downtown that had been abandoned. “Something has got to be done for downtown Demopolis. Let’s don’t do anything to ruin this committee and what (it’s) trying to do.”