Locations of three billboards that might go digital were revealed Thursday at a Longview Chamber of Commerce forum.
Much of the standing-room-only crowd said they supported the digital move if it means getting rid of a three-sided billboard and the dilapidated old Waffle Shoppe restaurant under it.
“I didn’t hear anyone that wasn’t for the redevelopment of the intersection,” said Grant Gary, president of brokerage services for The Woodmont Co. of Fort Worth. Woodmont represents Starbucks, which wants to open a store at the Spur 63-West Marshall Avenue intersection where Waffle Shoppe restaurant closed down in 2016.
“There was a lot of conversation — and positive conversation — about the signage and a larger review of the signage code at a future date,” Grant said, “but again, I felt there was consistent support of redeveloping (what is) really one of the gateways to the city.”
The static billboards pegged for digital faces are located at the CEFCO store at 611 E. Marshall Ave., at the Jack in the Box at 427 N.E. Loop 281 and at Swimming Pool Superstore at 1621 W. Loop 281.
They are the last obstacles to a plan to transform the vacant restaurant into a state-of-the-art Starbucks store. For the deal to fall into place, however, Starbucks wants the three-sided, five-sign billboard on the West Marshall Avenue site removed.
The owner of the billboard, Baton Rouge-based Lamar Signs, has agreed to remove it only if it can turn the three static billboards to digital faces. That move that would violate the city’s 2003 sign ordinance and 2008 Changeable Copy Sign Ordinance.
Not everyone at the meeting supported the new digital billboards, though.
Dave Spurrier, who served on task forces that created both ordinances, opposes the addition of more digital signs in Longview. He said that was the community consensus that led to the laws that practically prevent new ones.
“I’m 100 percent in favor of this development, but I’m 100 percent opposed to the solution,” Spurrier said.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment will decide whether to approve the variance when it meets at 11 a.m. Aug. 20 at City Hall.
State law mandates that the ZBA’s decision is final, so any appeal must be filed in a Gregg County district court — not the City Council or the Planning and Zoning Commission, City Planner Angela Choy said.
The chamber invited developers Gary and John King Jr. to the forum to explain their plans and give insight to business owners about the sign ordinance and variance process. Chamber board member Mark Robinson served as moderator.
Longview City Council members Kristen Ishihara and Steve Pirtle were in attendance but kept quiet on their opinions about the matter. Ishihara encouraged people to give their opinions about the variance to the Zoning Board through Choy, but also to tell her or other council members whether the city should revisit the ordinances.
Another look at the ordinances would require the City Council to start the process of calling another task force and gathering community input, which would take at least four months, she said.
Gary and King said they are requesting the variance because their time window for making the redevelopment happen is short.
“I don’t know exactly what our next remedies or steps will be, but it lives or dies at this,” King said. “To the best of my knowledge, if the ZBA doesn’t approve this, this (Waffle Shoppe) building stays for the time being.”
Longview ordinances require that a billboard sign should reach a maximum of 35 feet tall and 400 square feet, City Manager Keith Bonds said. The sign can’t be within 15 feet of a residential zoned area or within 3,000 feet of another sign.
Also, no new billboard can be erected unless two existing billboards are taken down. Lamar would have to remove at least six billboards to transform three static billboards into digital, according to the city.
“We don’t make the rules,” Bonds said. “We just enforce what the community gives us through the City Council. I don’t have an opinion.”
Spurrier said he believes that granting the variance would start “a slippery slope” toward having more digital signs enter the Longview market.
“I believe that there are other alternatives for Lamar for their loss of these three signs other than digital billboards all over Longview,” Spurrier said, “and my prognostication is that, over time, that’s what our community will have, and I think that’s a high price to pay aesthetically for our community for this business.
“If that’s the only way to get it done, then it’s probably going to pass and we’ll live with digital signs.”
Developers called Thursday’s conversation constructive and positive. They said they hope it leads to a groundswell of support for the ZBA granting their variance.
“I think everyone had very valid arguments and points here,” King said, “but it seemed to me that the temperature of the room was, ‘What do we need to get this done and show that Longview is a progressive city and, in three points, clean up that area, show we’re a progressive city and address the fact that we’re losing signs at the end of the day.’”
Jay Knight, president of Complete Business Systems that is across the street from the old Waffle Shoppe, said both sides of the issue have valid points.
While Knight wants Longview to become a more attractive city and understood Spurrier’s stance, he also is excited about replacing nearby vacant buildings with new businesses.
“I’ve watched this part of town go down for quite a number of years,” Knight said. “When I heard about this, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty exciting.’… That’s not just good for me. That’s good for the town.”
John Green, owner of the Green Ad Agency in Longview, also served on the sign ordinance. He voiced support Thursday for removing the three-sided billboard, redeveloping the lot and digitizing billboard signs elsewhere in the city.
“I think (digital billboards) can provide a great service, a new technology (and) looks way better than any of the other boards in town,” Green said.
Tem Carpenter, a member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, asked what it would cost for someone to buy out Lamar’s lease of the three-sided billboard, but developers gave no specific amount.
According to Lamar’s website, any one of the company’s more than 250 billboard bulletins in the Longview market can range in price between $200 and $2,200 a month.
Frankie Parson, another former member of the sign task force, said she would like to see the new billboards on other roads of the city besides Loop 281.
“I think it’s concentrated too close,” Parson said.
King and Gary noted that the site, which is about a half-acre in size, has been unappealing to many prospective tenants. While they never identified Starbucks at the meeting — the retailer is named in documents submitted to the city — developers said their cup of opportunities is nearly dry.
“We’ve had one tenant stick with us the entire time,” King said, “and this is our final solution to move forward.”