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The Cotulla – La Salle County Chamber of Commerce has begun fundraising efforts to replace an iconic but antiquated marquee at the corner of Front Street and Hwy 97 downtown, where local events are publicized.
The present fixture at the site is an updated version of the original that stood for decades and requires manual lettering on several lines of text. Chamber representatives hope to modernize the marquee with an electronic sign that can include lighted graphics.
Since the marquee stands in Cotulla’s historic downtown district, city councilors in previous administrations took steps to prevent local businesses or civic organizations from installing bright or flashing signs that could – in their opinion – detract from the preserved architecture and vintage look of the city center.
Chamber Manager Melinda Rheinfeldt and Chairman of the Board Jose Manuel Gonzalez approached the council at a recent meeting and introduced sign manufacturer Nick Harris, who said any device installed at the site can be adapted to meet the city’s ordinances.
“The new sign would not blink or interfere with traffic,” Rheinfeldt said in response to concerns over motorists being distracted on the approach to busy intersections and the Union Pacific Railroad grade crossing, which lies within yards of the marquee.
Rheinfeldt asked the city council at a June meeting to waive a 14-year-old ordinance that could block installation of a lighted sign.
Also occupying space on a lawn at the marquee site is a historical marker for the Camino Real, unveiled by Senator Judith Zaffirini in 1995. The marker describes the area as historically significant for the convergence of several trade routes between the Gulf of Mexico and the San Antonio Missions, among others. Local historians have pointed to the area as vital in the development of modern South Texas as the railroad and the highways replaced wagon trails through the Brush Country. The intersection of Front Street, the railroad line, Hwy 97 and the old Laredo – San Antonio highway (today’s Main Street) is considered of vital historic and cultural significance to the region.
City Attorney Steve Pena told councilors in June that the 2008 ordinance prohibits LED-lighted billboards and those with “changing messages.”
Harris said his signs can be adjusted to extend the length of time that messages are displayed, so that motorists are not confronted with a myriad of lights and movement on the marquee. Signs of this nature in San Antonio, he said, are limited to a seven-second delay. The Cotulla marquee could be adjusted to change messages every twenty seconds.
“What is being proposed is a stationary message,” Atty. Pena said. “You can change the message. You don’t want it to look like a television when you’re driving by.”
Harris said the marquee may also be used for emergency postings, such as Amber Alerts for missing children.
“When we had the 2008 ordinance, this was all new technology at the time,” the city attorney said. “The concern was distracting traffic. The ordinance was to prevent a proliferation of these electronic signs. The council can give a variance on this, or deny it.
“Safety and aesthetics are issues,” Pena added. “Does everybody like signs? Everyone knows where this sign is.
“If you grant this [variance], you can say ‘don’t come back next week and want another one.’ There’s a reason to have it,” Pena told the council in June.
City Administrator Larry Dovalina said he believes councilors have a duty to hold the Chamber to the standards established by the city. The marquee, he said, can be limited in the speed of its displays by order of the city and must be kept at least fifty feet away from the railroad line.
Councilor Gilbert Ayala made the motion to allow the Chamber to replace the marquee with an electronic sign, thereby granting a variance without striking the 2008 ordinance, and was supported unanimously by the council. The motion included a requirement that displays be limited to a minimum of twenty seconds.
Rheinfeldt said later that the Chamber of Commerce has begun contacting its members and other potential donors to begin the fundraising process, and that the Chamber board hopes to make progress on the replacement before the end of this year.