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Chamber has its say on sign issue

The Two Harbors Chamber of Commerce has received a stay until October on its billboard removal order from the Minnesota Department of Transporation. Mike Creger

Representatives from the Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce and the city vented their frustration with a state order to remove the Chamber's welcome sign on the west end of Two Harbors Tuesday in a meeting with Minnesota Department of Transportation ombudsman Debra Ledvina.

MnDOT surveyed all the signs along Highway 61 from Duluth to Canada and found two out of compliance with rules for National Scenic Highways. New billboards are not allowed and, because there is no permit for the Chamber sign, it has been marked for removal.

Chamber President Gordy Anderson argued that because there are only two signs out of compliance, the Chamber should be granted relief through some kind of variance or exception. He received a 60-day notice to remove the sign in early April.

He said the Chamber assumed the sign -- which changed hands throughout the years -- had a permit, but apparently that wasn't the case.

The sign brings in about $7,500 a year in revenue for the Chamber.

"As a board, we see it as one more revenue stream going away," Anderson said. He said the sign's publicity provides an essential service to local businesses.

"It does give some type of knowledge that there is more than Seventh Avenue," said Mayor Randy Bolen.

One alternative discussed was switching to an unused billboard down the road, which has a permit. Anderson said the Chamber had not explored that option.

Meeting attendees also discussed removing the Two Harbors section of Highway 61 from Scenic Byway designation, which would allow the sign to remain, but would mean a loss of federal money. The Chamber had been counting on Scenic Byway money to help move the visitor center from the east end of Two Harbors to the west end.

Ledvina said she would ask the MnDOT commissioner if the agency could delay removing the sign until the city decides whether it wants to relinquish Scenic Byway designation for Highway 61. No decision was made at the meeting.

The relatively new position of MnDOT ombudsman is to settle differences with the department that people have been unable to resolve through other channels. MnDOT states that it has an independent and neutral informal official who will do fact-finding on complaints and assist in finding solutions.