Sign language

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The only billboard anywhere near the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge won't give directions to a shop that makes walnut bowls, offer help for gambling addicts or even tell people how many miles they have to drive to get a roll chucked at them.

That's because the Cape Girardeau Downtown Merchants Association has signed a three-year lease with Jansco Outdoor Advertising for exclusive rights to the billboard on Asher Street that will be seen by about 15,000 people who will drive on the new bridge each day.

"Obviously, we felt this was an important sign for us," said Scott Shivelbine, who is with Shivelbine's Music and a member of the association's board of directors. "It's going to be the first thing people see when they get off the bridge, so we wanted it to say something about downtown."

The 12-by-24-foot sign is located on the north side of the new Highway 74, just west of the Fountain Street exit. It will be the only billboard at the Missouri base of the bridge and the only billboard between the bridge and West End Boulevard.

Taking sides

Shivelbine said one side of the billboard will be for use of the association, primarily alerting drivers to the fact that Cape Girardeau's scenic downtown -- and its shops, restaurants and other businesses -- is just a few blocks away.

The other side of the billboard will be used for downtown businesses, with plans to change the sign every six months, Shivelbine said. The association also has first option on renewing the contract with Jansco when the lease expires in 2006. The association is paying about $850 a month to lease the sign.

The billboard actually was the center of some controversy last year when former city inspector Rob Roberts approved it despite the fact that it violated zoning laws by being only 700 feet from a residential area, not the required 1,000 feet.

The billboard was granted a variance by the city board of adjustments, meaning it will be allowed to remain there indefinitely.

"It slipped under the wire," said city inspections director Rob McClary, who replaced Roberts.

Since then, the Cape Girardeau City Council has changed its billboard ordinance, which now forbids any new billboards along Highway 74 east of Kingshighway. McClary said two other billboards had been across the new highway from the Asher Street billboard, but their permits were not renewed in light of the city's new ordinance. They were later taken down.

Elden Nattier, owner of the Rose Bed Inn Bed and Breakfast on Sprigg Street, can step outside of his business and see the billboard. Originally, he was opposed to allowing the billboard to remain. But he thinks if it's going to be there, it ought to promote downtown Cape Girardeau.

"We think that's the best use for it," he said. "We were opposed to having a whole string of billboards along the highway. We didn't want it to become 'Welcome to Cape: Billboard city.' But now, it's ideal."

Downtown Merchants Association president Bill Dunn agreed.

"As the only sign and the only downtown exit, we want to make certain that we get our chance to attract those visitors," he said. "We really have something for them to see."

Dunn was also glad that the association will have the first chance to renew the lease when it expires in 2006. He is confident the association and the downtown businesses have access to the billboard for as long as they want.

"I can't imagine we're ever going to let it go," Dunn said.

335-6611, extension 137

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