It’s hard to believe that one billboard on the Thruway, seen only by people traveling east, is the engine driving the city of Johnstown’s economy, as so many local leaders and politicians would have us believe. It is hard to imagine that it is even the major factor in the success of Johnstown’s Holiday Inn, which advertises on the 2,000-square-foot sign.
No one has offered any evidence of the economic importance of the billboard — no statistics on how many drivers are whipping down the Thruway at 75 miles an hour, happen to look at the billboard on top of a hill near Sprakers and decide to drive 12 miles off the Thruway to stay at a motel.
I can’t remember ever staying at a motel because of a billboard, and I know I would not stay at a motel if I had to make a 24-mile round trip off the highway. And why would anyone drive so far off the Thruway to stay at a motel, rather than stay at one in Fultonville or Amsterdam, which are on the Thruway?
I use the Internet to check out motels ahead of time, or I use one of those motel coupon books at interstate rest areas to find one when I am on the road. Many people use their smart phones to easily find motels, restaurants and gas stations when they are on the road. In fact, so many passengers, and sometimes drivers, are preoccupied with their smart phones and tablets while on the road, I wonder if they ever see billboards.
Still an eyesore
On Sept. 10, 1995, The Sunday Gazette published a piece in which I argued that the entire region has too many billboards. I compared our state to Vermont, where there are fewer billboards and which is therefore a more attractive state for both residents and tourists. While I did not mention the Holiday Inn billboard, I have thought for years that it is an eyesore.
What is particularly egregious about this billboard is it’s virtually the only thing marring the beauty of what is arguably the most scenic section of the New York State Thruway between Albany and Buffalo.
Apparently, Mohawk Valley politicians and community leaders have become so used to the beauty of the area around Big Nose and Little Nose, they have become blind to it. In another piece the Gazette published in January 2006, I argued that the beauty of the Mohawk Valley, along with its history, is one of its primary assets. If we are to attract people to this area, we must preserve these two major assets. Instead, we continue to destroy them.
The state of New York is not always right, but it is right in demanding that this sign be removed. The federal Highway Beautification Act outlawed signs like the one for the Holiday Inn, but allowed those already built to remain for the time being. These signs are called non-conforming signs.
Federal law states, “Nonconforming signs may continue as long as they are not destroyed, abandoned, or discontinued. If permitted by state law and re-erected in kind, exception may be made for signs destroyed due to vandalism and other criminal or tortious acts.”
When the Holiday Inn sign was destroyed in 2006, it did not meet any of the above exceptions, and it appears to me, after reading all the pertinent federal laws (see www.fhwa.dot.gov), it should not have been rebuilt. The sign is no longer a non-conforming sign but an illegal one.
I am not a lawyer, but it also appears that the bill passed by the state Legislature permitting the rebuilt sign to remain violates federal law, but I will leave that dispute to the lawyers. I can, however, say with complete certainty that the rebuilt billboard violates the intent and spirit of the Highway Beautification Act. It also has jeopardized federal funding for that portion of the Thruway. One business should not be standing in the way of federal highway funding.
Out of touch
Like CBS, which owns CBS Outdoor and claims that “Billboards are the only way to reach travelers — who often are not exposed to any other form of advertising,” the Holiday Inn in Johnstown is out of touch with the times. The Holiday Inn can increase its business by placing ads in places like hotelcoupons.com, the company that places coupon books at every rest stop on the Thruway. Many Holiday Inns already do it, One of Holiday Inn’s competitors in Johnstown does it. It can also do more with social media and phone apps, which so many people turn to now to find things when they are traveling.
I have nothing against the Holiday Inn, and I positively love Johnstown. I enjoy going to its still vibrant downtown. I love to visit its historic sites: Johnson Hall, the Drumm House, the Johnstown Historical Society and former mayor Bill Pollak’s School District Museum. But as the Five Man Electric Band once sang, it is not necessary to have a “. . . sign, Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind” to point the way there.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.