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Sign debate puts hotel on hold

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Don't look now, but a long-rumored hotel that will add more revenue to the city's coffers just suffered a setback.

During a public hearing on Thursday, June 12, the City of Bandera Board of Adjustments grappled with whether to grant a sign variance to the owner of property located at 703 Main Street. For those living under a rock, the now-vacant city block was formerly the site of the Old Texas Square complex. Ultimately, however, the petitioners withdrew their request with a promise to reconfigure the sign schematics.

Property owner Al Rajabi of Building Blox, along with his development team, city-corporation liaison Gene Hartman and digital consultant Tom Bogard, attended the public hearing.

Build it our way

During the public hearing, residents and board members voiced concerns about the size of the sign and the fact that it will be a stand-alone structure - at least until a hotel is constructed on the site. The proposed sign would be 34 feet high, the height of a two-story structure, and include a digital messaging area of 10 feet high and 20 feet long.

"I've never seen a sign go up before a business opens," said one city resident, who later indicated she would be happiest with a two-story hotel.

Hartman explained that the off-premise sign would not advertise the hotel. "This would offer opportunities for small businesses to have an affordable advertising venue," he said. The digital message center could be used by retail businesses, schools and nonprofits, among others, to advertise special events.

Describing the sign as a "revenue-generating opportunity for the hotel," Hartman noted that as designed, the sign would cost $300,000. "Investing that much says a lot about our intentions for this community," he added.

Board member Bill Bryce questioned "what hardship" would occur should the variance not be granted. Hartman replied, "The hardship is under-utilization of the land. It needs to be revenue generating. Before the hotel, there will be the sign and a retail outlet. It's part of the business plan we've put together." When requesting a variance, a petitioner has to prove that he would suffer a "hardship" if the variance were not granted, and the "hardship" cannot be purely monetary.

Hartman added, "The sign will help aid the process of constructing the hotel. Our marketing data indicates that the hotel would be filled from Thursday to Monday, but the middle of the week remains a concern. The sign would be a quick win for you and put revenue in the city's pockets. It would be an immediate return on investment."

When objections were raised about having a "Welcome to Bandera, Texas" sign in the middle of town, Bogard said the unusual advertising mechanism was designed "to represent the motif of Bandera." He added, "We plan to spend three times the normal investment to build something western."

'Focal point, not eyesore'

Bogard urged the board to "look at it as a community sign where small businesses have an opportunity to invest a small amount of money to get their messages out. This will be a focal point and a source of pride for the community, not an eyesore. It would provide timely, relevant information to tourists. The digital message center would be a tool for businesses not located on Main Street."

Another woman objected to the sign because she felt changes in Bandera had occurred "because people came to the town and challenged the city's rules and ordinances." She told council, "If you give them one change, they'll want more."

Board member Mason Clark noted that a rendering of the hotel given to members of the board of adjustments by the development team "was not in compliance with the ordinance."

"To get a flag hotel in Bandera, we'll need 55 rooms and it was indicated that a conference center would be useful. And, a four-story hotel would be more luxurious," Hartman said. He also indicated that the development team would, indeed, "be coming back for more variances." The project is expected to cost $4.5 million.

If the hotel were scaled back to three stories, the conference center would be a casualty. During an earlier meeting, representatives of area dude ranches had indicated that their businesses would benefit should a facility be available in Bandera that could accommodate small to large conventions and conferences, according to reports.

Rajabi, a 14-year veteran of the hotel business, told the board he had recently opened a $10 million hotel in Fredericksburg that included a $1 million pool. "I could sell (the Bandera) property tomorrow, but I don't want to see it turned into a car lot. I want to develop in your town because I believe in your town, but we must follow our business plan."

He continued, "We designed the hotel with Bandera in mind. In Fredericksburg and Boerne, we have a lot of tourists who want to go back in time (to the Old West). For that reason, we selected the Best Western franchise. The sign will be a very important part of the hotel. The sign will say 'Bandera.' If there is no sign, it will be difficult to make the hotel happen."

Lengthy oration

City Administrator Mike Cardenas said that the sign, not the hotel, was under discussion during this public hearing. He also explained, "No ordinance states that developers must give plans for their proposed building when applying for a sign variance."

Addressing a concern that the size of the sign would impede traffic turning onto Main off Oak Street from Bandera Middle School, Hartman said that an engineer would ensure that this did not happen. Additionally, he reiterated that the sign was designed to be proportional to the hotel and retail center.

County resident Robert Koimn offered a litany of reasons why the proposed sign and hotel failed to adhere to his interpretation of city ordinances and Texas Department of Transportation rules.

Chairman Linda James asked, "Who are you doing this research for - this committee or the audience?" He said it was for participants who were perhaps unaware of the language of the ordinance.

It should be noted that if the sign had been in accordance with current city ordinances, there would have been no need to request a variance.

Koimn indicated that since the city had made Steve Ball "jump through hoops" during his application process "... then Al and his team has to 'jump through the same hoops'." In 2009, Ball attempted to build a boutique hotel and conference center at The Mansion in Bandera, 1007 Hackberry Street. After being stymied by city administrators and members of the planning and zoning commission of which Koimn was then a member, Ball closed his B&B and pub and did not construct the proposed luxury hotel.

After enumerating myriad problems with the proposed hotel and retail complex, including parking, building height and land use, Koimn concluded by saying, "This is a good project and good for the city." He advised the development team to "work with the city to make it happen." Koimn ended his lengthy presentation by saying, "Bandera needs authentic tourism, not Hollywood-style tourism."

At this point, Rajabi said, "If you don't want me here, I'll get in my car and go develop somewhere else. Excuse the pun but this is not my first rodeo. I have faith in your town and I ask you to have faith in me."

Go back to drawing board

Apparently, many in the audience - and on the board itself - were confused about the nature of the digital message center, envisioning flashing Las Vegas-style lights and scrolling messages that might pose a safety hazard to motorists.

Bogard explained that the digital messages would be "static still images that would change instantly. There will be no scrolling, rolling or flashing. In addition, at night the sign will dim to less than 3 percent of it's power."

Hartman added that studies have shown that signs like the one proposed do not contribute to a greater frequency of accidents. Clark also noted that traffic on Main Street does not reach the velocity of that on the state's interstate systems; however, he worried that if the sign were approved first, "the hotel might never be built."

After she enumerated a litany of complaints against the development team and their request for a variance, it became apparent that board member Susan Burke would never approve the variance. She advised Rajabi, Hartman and Bogard to adhere to the ordinance as written.

Board member Denise Griffin suggested that they withdraw their variance request at this time, discard the "Welcome to Bandera" lower portion, decrease the sign's height to 15 feet maximum and reduce the size of the digital message center. "If the sign is brought down to 'Bandera size,' the people will be more receptive to it," she said. "Reconfigure the sign and bring it back to the board, the people will be happier. I think it's great thing, but just not that big."

"To be successful, this must be something everyone wants. This design was our gift to the city," Rajabi commented.

Speaking in favor of the project, event coordinator Genie Strickland considered the sign, as presented, "a great marketing tool." She cautioned the board not to demand it be so reduced in size that all effectiveness would be lost. "With a hotel, it won't look as big and a four foot by eight foot message won't be large enough," she said.

Rajabi and his team agreed to withdraw their request for a variance at this time and work with their designer to come up with a different concept for the sign.

For years, elected officials and administrators have been trying to identify a location for the "Welcome to Bandera" sign that Rajabi had incorporated into the hotel sign. As one longtime city watcher noted, "They might as well welcome visitors in the center of town because those signs will never get placed anywhere else."

By a 4-1 decision, with Burke voting against the motion, the request for a variance was tabled until a later date.