Tucumcari passes ordinance to protect Route 66 neon signs

New Mexico

TUCUMCARI, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s an ongoing debate on how to preserve the old, neon signs along Route 66. Now, Tucumcari is taking a stance with a new ordinance which is being called the first of its kind in the country.

Johnnie Meier with the New Mexico Route 66 Association, the old signs along the ‘mother road’ tell our story.

“It’s part of our heritage. It’s part of our culture. It’s part of our personality,” Meier said.

It’s why he co-drafted the newly adopted Landmark Historic Sign Ordinance in Tucumcari. The town has been gradually losing some of its Route 66 memorabilia.

“There’s an issue with disappearing neon signs all over the country,” he said.

Meier calls it a ‘gold rush’ of old Route 66 signs, often auctioned off and very popular in the classic car industry.

The new ordinance would try to keep those signs out of that situation.

Under the new ordinance, Route 66 business owners can apply for their neon signs to be registered as a historic landmark. If accepted, perks of this could include tourism promotion and a plaque with the designation.

If the owner wanted to sell or demolish the sign in the future, it would be required to request a permit with the city. The city then has 90 days to help come up with a different preservation option, like getting the sign to a museum.

However, it could also be a private, potential buyer, that raises money to buy the sign within those 90 days. In which case, the ordinance seems to have a loophole.

The ordinance passed with a 4-1 vote, showing not all city commissioners were on board. Not all business owners are on board either.

“There’s a lot of us that have concerns about the landmarking. I just don’t agree with it,” said Lila Doughty, general manager at The Palomino Motel.

“There’s also been businesses that’s sold them (signs) out of the blue, They’ve disappeared and we don’t want that to happen. But, there may be better ways o do it. I don’t know. As a business owner, we’d like to have control of our sign,” said Kevin Mueller, owner of the Blue Swallow Motel.

Owners said they don’t plan on selling signs since it’s what attracts people to their business. Sign-owners don’t have to register their signs. That’s the route the Palomino Motel is taking.

“I’m not going to have someone tell me I can’t sell my sign if I want to. I’m the one that does all the upkeep here, not the town. It’s my property and that’s how I look at it,” Doughty said.

Meier hopes businesses will get in the spirit of protecting this town’s Route 66 past.

“We can just sit in our lawn chairs and watch our history and our heritage and our culture be hauled away, or we can get proactive,” he said.

For businesses that register their sign as a historic landmark, the penalty for not requesting a permit from the city to demolish or sell it can be a fine up to $5,000 or up to 90 days in jail.

To read the full ordinance, click here.

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