Tucumcari commissioners reject landmark ordinance for historic neon signs

The Tucumcari City Commission last week by a 3-2 vote rejected a landmark ordinance that would have added a layer of protection for historic neon signs — a sign of how property rights make such proposals a tough sell.

One of the commissioners who rejected the plan, Todd Duplantis, owns two Route 66 restaurants in Tucumcari. Neither has historic neon signs, however.

Two other commissioners, Amy Gutierrez and Christopher Arias, also voted against the ordinance. Ruth Ann Litchfield and Ralph Moya voted for it.

From the Quay County Sun:

Duplantis, who owns the Cornerstone Deli and the Kix on 66 restaurants, said the ordinance as proposed would give the city ownership rights on private property.
He also said an ordinance that relies on businesses to volunteer their signs to be designated historic “isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”
Duplantis said the state’s criteria for historic designation should be adequate. According to the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, any person or group can nominate a site for historic designation, but owners must be notified.
Arias wondered how the cash-strapped city would come up with money to meet a competing offer.
Gutierrez said the ordinance could subject the city to fraud from fake offers to buy historic signs.
Litchfield and Moya said the common interest in preserving Tucumcari’s historical signs should carry some weight in the discussion.
Moya said, as an owner of property on Route 66, the value of his property would be reduced if signs that contribute historical value disappear.

The ordinance proposal was prompted by the disappearance of several historic neon signs along Route 66 in New Mexico to collectors, including three in Tucumcari. Many of the signs were purchased by the Garcia Automotive Group in Albuquerque, sparking an outcry from some Route 66 advocates.

(Disclosure: My full-time job is with the Quay County Sun, but I didn’t write the story for the newspaper.)

Johnnie Meier, former president of the New Mexico Route 66 Association and a longtime proponent of Route 66 sign preservation who submitted the ordinance language, said in an email this week he was “shocked and disheartened” by the Tucumcari’s rejection of the plan.

Meier said he’d asked the city clerk whether he and the association’s president, Melissa Lea Beasley, should attend last week’s meeting.

We were told it was not necessary, in that the action before the committee was simply a step towards a public hearing where the merits of the ordinance could be discussed. Instead, it seems the ordinance was discussed without a formal public hearing.

Meier added in his email:

The comments that should the ordinance be passed, and an offer was on the table, that the cash strapped city could not come up with the matching cash should not have been a deciding factor. Matching an offer would have opened up many options including funding from private and corporate benefactors, a lodgers tax appropriation and Go Fund Me campaigns to name a few examples. In fact, the New Mexico Route 66 Association could be a leader in raising funds.
The comment that such an ordinance “isn’t worth the paper it is printed on” shows a lack of understanding regarding the tools for preservation. Neither state nor national designation on the National Registry of Historic Properties provide protection for a property. Listing on the national and/or state registry is simply an honor that also has attached some tax benefits for maintaining or improving the property. The only option for protecting historic properties is through city enacted landmarking ordinances.
The issue of so-called “fake offer” to purchase a historic sign that would trigger the ordinance is addressed in the language of the ordinance. The ordinance includes a process for avoiding fake offers that requires a written notarized offer specifically requiring the identity of the offerer and contact data for the offerer that would allow follow-up and verification of the offer.
It is disappointing that the council did not solicit expertise regarding the ordinance and dismissed the ordinance without consulting expertise that could have readily been provided by the New Mexico Route 66 Association.
The ordinance was specifically brought to Tucumcari by the New Mexico Route 66 Association to provide Tucumcari with a first-in-the-nation opportunity to enact a ground-breaking preservation ordinance that would be a model for communities across the country who are concerned about the preservation of historic signs.
If the city chooses to not enact a sign landmarking ordinance, it is a green light to have Tucumcari’s iconic signs become trophies for wealthy collectors and leaves Tucumcari stripped of an important and vital part of its Route 66 heritage. With the selling off of the Paradise Motel sign and the Cactus Motel signs, Route 66 tourists have two less reasons to visit Tucumcari and if the trend continues, it is bad news economically in terms of tourism.
It should also be apparent that if Tucumcari demonstrates it has no community support for preserving historic Route 66  signs and properties, that future grant funds for preservation will likely not be forthcoming to Tucumcari.

Even before the ordinance was floated to the Tucumcari city commission, I wrote:

One should understand, however, getting such an ordinance enacted by a typical city commission may be a tough sell — particularly in the West, where property rights are sacrosanct. And after all, these sign acquisitions are perfectly legal transactions between two willing parties.

Regrettably, it seems I was correct in my assessment. It now appears another Route 66 town will have to take the lead on this issue.

(An image of the historic Buckaroo Motel sign along Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico, by Chuck Coker via Flickr)

9 thoughts on “Tucumcari commissioners reject landmark ordinance for historic neon signs

  1. Disappointing but also not surprising. I guess there just aren’t many options that can keep those historic signs from disappearing from my hometown and others like it. It is sad to see how many have already been lost. Business leaders, government, and the community working together would have to see the value as a whole and be willing to put forth the effort it would require. Will be interesting to see if another community takes the lead on this approach, there are many others in the same situation.

  2. The three who voted against the ordinance voted in favour of the theft and disappearance of further signs. Considering it was only five people voting, just one vote would have decided the opposite way. Hardly the views of all of the town.

  3. True, Ron. But when there are so many abandoned or just empty properties along Route 66, the temptation to simply steal signs must be a very real threat to their retention. How is that the Tucumcari City Commission consists of only five commissioners? Or is that the quorum? A very small tail wagging a very big dog.

  4. Thanks, Laura. Reminds me of the power just three men – Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky – had in Russia/USSR. And the power just one man – the president – holds in your country.

  5. I have read most of the comments regarding the “disappearance and/or sale ” of the iconic signs in Tucumcari over the past couple of years. As the owner of the Paradise Motel sign, I feel that I should state my feelings on this subject.

    It is unfortunate that the once wonderful and beautiful Paradise Motel fell into hard times and had to close. Sadly, the west end of Tucumcari looks like a war zone. Anyone entering Tucumcari from the east is greeted by the vandalized wrecks of a gas station, truck stop, restaurant and a couple of burned down motels. Not too inviting for tourists to stop and enjoy the town.

    Over my 35 years of traveling the “Mother Road”, I have kind of adopted Tucumcari. Over the years I had stayed at the Paradise Motel more than once and my wife and I felt that we should do something to save the sign from vandalism and destruction. After the first fire to the property, we decided to pursue the purchase of the sign. The Paradise property and sign were privately owned.

    The owner of the property was in no hurry to sell and it wasn’t until the second fire that he was motivated to do so. Now I ask you, where were the preservationists during this time? Were they blind to see what was happening to this property? How about the city or one of the Route 66 organizations stepping up to preserve the motel sign? It didn’t happen. According to the motel owner, the only person who contacted him about the sign was me. It took four months to put the sale together. Again, our motivation to buy the sign and have it removed was to preserve it before it was used for target practice. But, according to some, we are the bad guys. The owner for selling and us for buying.

    As I understand it, some government grants were offered to restore the sign back in 2003, when the motel was still operating. I feel that the owner fulfilled his part of the agreement if there was one. That was 14 years before I bought it. So, what would be a reasonable time table? The motel was belly-up.

    Let me back up a minute. If the Paradise Motel wasn’t so far out of town, we would have never bought the sign. If it was located in what I refer to as the “Golden Corridor”, the area of Route 66 where the Safari, Blue Swallow, Del’s and Kix 66 is located, we wouldn’t have gone to the trouble and expense of rescuing the sign.

    Don’t throw us under the bus for doing the right thing. If and when we ever sell the sign, Tucumcari will have the first crack at it.

    -John T.

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