City's murals proposal draws backlash

Pat Donahue/Times-EnterpriseThomasville City Council members will weigh whether to impose a moratorium on murals, such as this one on Liam's. 

THOMASVILLE — Thomasville City Council members heard from several business owners Wednesday that they are not in favor of a proposed moratorium on murals.

Council members are scheduled to take a vote Monday on a second reading of an ordinance imposing a 180-day moratorium on murals. But the idea has met with backlash from the business community.

“I am not in favor of a moratorium,” said Heather Abbott, owner of South Life Supply Co. “I don’t understand the need for such emergency action. 

Abbott called into question just how much opinion other than its own the city council will seek and if there are not more pressing issues for the council members to tackle.

“I am not sure why this issue of such concern to council right now, when there are a list of other issues I would consider more pressing,” Abbott said, “one of which is our current homeless situation. which I have been working personally for six years.”

Abbott said safety is such a concern for her now that she will not let her female employees walk by themselves to their vehicles after dark.

April Fletcher, who recounted the hurdles she faced in redoing her Broad Street store, thought the council’s push for a moratorium came across as underhanded.

“Many of you are not property owners  but are voted into position to make decisions,” she said. “This is not a decision to be made in secret.”

Rhonda Foster, owner of Liam’s, has a mural across the top of her restaurant’s facade. She said she researched the historic preservation rules to make sure she was within the guidelines and that she was “respectful of the town that I love.”

“It is shameful the way this is being handled by all of you,” Foster added. 

Foster said any worry over what kind of mural might be put up, particularly one that could be deemed offensive, would be better handled through a decency statute.

“I don’t think any business owner would put up anything on their building that would drive business away,” she said. 

“A decency clause would cover more than a mural.”

Allison Cohenhour of AJ Moonspin said the mural recently done on the side of her restaurant has drawn attention from across the nation. It also is ground-breaking in its technology, she told council members. 

Hidden in the mural are QR codes and when scanned with a phone, there are 3-D planets that pop up and spin around and have the restaurant’s menu.

The mural and its creator are drawing the attention of “Good Morning America,” Cohenhour said.

“This is the coolest tech in murals,” she said.

Cohenhour said there are 400 posts on her social media sites from outside users about her mural.

“People are coming,” she said. “Be open to the argument that these murals are beneficial.”

Fletcher pointed out her family has helped back the murals at the UnVacant Lot, a public art project along West Jackson Street. 

“It is an attraction that draws many people and purposefully placed to help beautify downtown,” she said.

Michelle Arwood, executive director of the Thomasville Center for the Arts, said the proposed 180-day moratorium would affect its plans for the upcoming Wildlife Arts Festival.

“In just three weeks, we will install another work by our Wildlife Arts Festival featured artist that’s been in development for nearly six months,” she said. “There is no price that you can put on the work that has gone into that piece already. 

“The six month moratorium you are proposing would put this project to bed and essentially toss away $100,000 that we have invested into this project space for the last eight years.” 

Groups offer help

Business owners urged council members to seek opinions from merchants, individuals and arts groups, and council members concurred.

“We are asking you to vote against an emergency ordinance and work toward an alternative approach that we believe could move us to an elegant solution for this complex challenge,” Arwood said, “and hopefully easing this tension we are feeling between the merchants, property owners and our citizens.”

Arwood pointed out that the TCA teamed with the city and other partners to develop the Creative District. She said they also began working with the city 10 years ago on guidelines for murals in the downtown district. 

“We knew then that if we didn’t put some a framework in place, we would end up exactly where we are today,” she said. “While we didn’t make progress of time, we can make great strides today now that the topic has hit the table.”

Arwood said the Center for the Arts is prepared to bring in experts from public art and development to sit down with residents, the city and business owners to craft an ordinance. The Center for the Arts, she said, is prepared to provide space, staffing and funding for the effort. 

“Our town needs a healing right now,” she said, “and we know first hand what happens when we bring this community of people together to solve problems. Amazing things happen here and we are confident this is what will happen when you bring citizens alongside you to design a solution.”

Thomasville Landmarks executive director Nancy Tinker said her organization does not oppose murals but urged council members to open the process to many voices.

“What we would encourage you to do is to listen to many opinions and find a way to move forward that allows us to protect the community in the way we have traditionally protected our resources,” she said.

Council member David Hufstetler, who voted against the moratorium at its first reading, said council members should tap into the expertise and input being offered.

“They are offering to help,” he said. “I think we would be foolish to not accept it.”

Genesis of moratorium

Council members first agreed to take up a murals moratorium at their recent retreat, but they noted they did not get into a discussion about it. 

Council member Jay Flowers said he has heard from both sides of the issue. 

“I’ve had people tell me they love the murals,” he said, “and I’ve had calls from people saying they’re afraid of what might happen next.”

Flowers said the murals were on his list of topics to bring up at the council’s retreat. 

“I understand there is some frustration,” he said. “I think that’s more about the process than about expectations. The historic aspect of our community is a significant element that we need to include in this discussion. Millions of dollars have been spent to maintain our downtown in its authentic nature. I’m not suggesting that anything done to date takes away from that.” 

Council member Todd Mobley said he welcomes the murals but also issued a concern about what might get put on the side of a edifice.

“We don’t know who’s out there and what people are thinking,” he said. 

City attorney Tim Sanders advised council members that they could enact a 60-day or 90-day moratorium, rather than the 180-day stop first proposed. 

Mayor Greg Hobbs said he supported a moratorium in order to get talks on a lasting regulation started.

“We need to make sure we are not telling people what to do with their buildings,” he said. “We need to get together as staff and citizens and see what works best. You got to have some rules in place.” 

“I am of the firm belief that there should never be too much government,” said council member Wanda Warren. “They all seem to be very tasteful. I didn’t see the emergency need to put an ordinance in place.” 

Hufstetler reiterated his opposition to the measure and said any rules for murals could be discussed and enacted without a moratorium.

“I think the sky is not falling,” he said. “Why would we want to infringe on private property rights? Why would a business owner do something that would drive business away?”

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