By Paul Huggins
Motorists passing Exit 340 have long wondered what might lay beyond the two gas stations beneath the Interstate 65 off ramp.
It doesn’t look like the bright, electrified exits they’d see at Athens and Priceville. Nor does it have the Department of Transportation’s official blue Interstate Logo Panel, pointing out the businesses waiting to take their money in exchange for gas, food or a pillow.
Decatur’s Exit 340 has never had that blue sign because the hotels and restaurants lie beyond the distance DOT allows for such advertisements. Tourism and hotel officials, however, aim to change that.
They have requested a waiver from the Alabama Department of Transportation to have the Holiday Inn & Suites, Country Inn & Suites and Motel 6 listed on the blue logo service sign.
‘Lost in a bubble’
“Decatur is just getting lost in a bubble,” said Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If you’re just passing through and didn’t know what was there, you wouldn’t know to stop,” she said.
“We need to be listed on those blue signs so people would know that there is life ahead.”
According to the DOT’s Procedures For Specific Service Signing on Interstate Highway Systems, to qualify for placement of a “Lodging” business logo on a specific service sign, a hotel must meet six conditions.
One of which is being located not more than 3.5 miles from the interstate via an all-weather road.
The Holiday Inn, being the closest to the interstate, lies 4.7 miles from Exit 340. Motel 6 is a block farther and the Country Inn is about half a mile farther.
The hardship case Decatur hotels can claim is there’s a national wildlife refuge and 1.5-mile wide river between them and the interstate.
Reist and the general managers of the three hotels sent letters to Mike Welch, District 1 permit engineer, who has forwarded them to Montgomery.
Welch said the three hotels already meet the other five conditions.
Sean Mobley, who makes the final decision on logo service signs, said DOT has given distance waivers previously and each one has something unique to its situation, so there is not a specific precedent that Decatur can follow.
Andy Safiano, general manager of Holiday Inn, said walk-in business is important enough for the hotel to have five billboards on the interstate and another one on Alabama 20 coming in from the West.
He said a logo sign at Exit 340 would be “very, very valuable,” even though the visibility doesn’t translate into a spur-of-the-moment decision to overnight in Decatur. Travelers will remember it the next time they pass by, he said.
Reist said getting a logo service sign also would serve the restaurants and gas stations near the hotels because travelers will associate those businesses as always being near a hotel center.
“I wanted to start with the lodging for the signs first because, typically, if you can get them to do the lodging, then we would have the opportunity to look at our restaurants like Waffle House, Louie’s at the Holiday Inn, Jack’s and others,” she said.
“If you can get the head in the bed, the others will follow suit.”