U.S. 17 meeting is set|Chamber, tourism authority to address business concerns

Published 6:30 am Friday, November 27, 2009

Staff Writer

Two groups have a message for motorists who will traverse the new U.S. Highway 17 Bypass: don’t pass us by.
The groups will hold a meeting for local business owners concerned about the possible commercial impacts of the bypass.
The happening is being organized by the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Tourism Development Authority.
The session is set for 5:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Washington Civic Center.
The focus of the meeting will be to hear from the N.C. Department of Transportation regarding costs and procedures for advertising local businesses on bypass road signs, said Lynn Lewis, Washington’s tourism development director.
“This is specifically designed for business owners to come and find out about the signage opportunities offered by the state,” Lewis said.
Also on hand will be representatives of private billboard companies, she noted.
The WTDA and the chamber are asking people interested in attending to RSVP by calling the Washington Visitors Center at 948-9415, Lewis stated.
Interested parties also may call the chamber at 946-9168.
DOT has two sign-related options for businesses, Lewis said. The options are the TODS, or Tourist Oriented Directional Signage program, and a logo component.
“The guidelines for both are very different, but they’re very specific,” she said. “So that’s why we decided to have this session.”
“We’ve definitely had some calls” from business owners about the impact the bypass could have on business, according to Catherine Glover, executive director of the chamber.
Glover said she has walked out onto the as-yet-unopened bypass several times. (The construction is nearing completion, with state inspections to follow, officials report.)
“You definitely can still see (the city), but you’ve got to have proper signage to get people here,” Glover commented.
The chamber has invited its members and other business owners to the meeting, she said.
“We do know there will be a huge increase of people coming into our county because of this bypass,” Glover said.
Asked whether the WTDA has analyzed the potential effects of the bypass, Lewis answered, “I don’t think it’s a cut-and-dried win or loss for the city. On one hand, whenever there’s a bypass you always see growth around a bypass. But, on the other hand, travelers on (the old) 17 business, as it will now be called, have such easy access to businesses in Washington currently that the bypass could threaten that.”
Lewis said she had an opportunity to cross the bypass several weeks ago.
“It was great to be able to see what the view will be for travelers coming across the bridge,” she said. “You do still see the downtown. However, there’s a disconnect between, ‘I see it; how do I get there?’ That’s the challenge.”
Mike Sloan, former vice president of the Historic Downtown Washington Merchants Association, said he foresees no detriment in the bypass.
Sloan noted that he sells insurance, is not a merchant, and doesn’t rely on pass-through traffic.
He added that he doesn’t expect a falloff in downtown business once the bypass opens.
“It’ll seem like Bridge Street and Carolina Avenue are kind of empty for a while, but I don’t think, in the long run, it’s going to be detrimental,” he commented.
The picture could be different for gas stations and fast-food restaurants on Carolina Avenue, he pointed out, noting that those establishments benefit from more people in transit.
“I think if it’s advertised, and we market our town, I don’t think (there will be) adverse effects, personally,” Sloan said.
That sentiment was echoed by Russell Smith, owner of Russell’s Men Shop on Main Street.
“People that I have talked to seem to think it’s going to help us,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s going to have a large negative impact on us. If anything, I hope it’s going to have a good, positive impact.”
Smith said his business employs a range of advertising options, including billboards. Smith said he has yet to consider putting his shop’s name on a bypass sign.
With the bypass likely to open next year, Lewis indicated that key city and private organizations have to work on making Washington a destination for travelers.
“I think there are a lot of people who are fearful about the bypass,” she said, “and I think people are going to realize how important it is to come together with a common approach at attracting the Highway 17 traveler.”