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Stymied at every turn, erecting heritage signs proves harder than it sounds

For the last six years, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area has been waiting for signs. Twenty-two signs, to be exact, marking heritage sites in the region deemed of interest to visitors and residents.

The signs were one the original concepts when the heritage area won federal designation in 2003, and a grant to install them has been in hand for six years. But it might be two more before the first goes into the ground.

In the time they’ve been waiting, the Chrysler Building could have been constructed four times. Mars has orbited the sun three times. Twenty-four million babies have been born in the United States.

But the sign project, which is partially funded by a federal transportation enhancement funds and orchestrated by the N.C. Department of Transportation, hasn’t been able to get its feet off the ground.

Now, though, says Angie Chandler, the project is back on track.

Chandler is the executive director of the Blue Ride National Heritage Area, and she’s currently selecting a firm to head up the design and engineering of the signs. Total, the project will put up 80 signs at locations throughout the area. The first 22 are already identified and well into the process. They include places such as the Oconaluftee Indian Village and Unto These Hills, the outdoor drama outlining Cherokee history. Progress has been made, says Chandler, and she hopes to have the them all installed well before her 2013 deadline.

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“I hate that the project fell into hard times and that there were some delays, but I can say that for the past 18 months, we have worked through the issues that we felt like were there, communicating with the sites, developing strong, positive communication with the NCDOT to get the project back on track,” says Chandler. “We’ll quickly see this project move into some real action.”

The history of the storied signs is a little difficult to trace, but one thing is clear: they did, indeed, fall on some hard times.

Chandler has only been manning her post for the past 18 months, so she’s not too sure what stalled the project for the four-plus years preceding her tenure.

Consensus is that there were complications and miscommunications with the folks down at the DOT. That might be a nice way of putting it, but again, it’s hard to tell. No one who started with the project is around anymore.

Marta Matthews, the DOT point person for federal transportation enhancement grants, says she’s at least the third person to have the job.

The protracted delay seems to be one part administrative muck up, one part turnover troubles and a smattering of miscellaneous obstacles thrown in.

On the administrative front, there was much confusion about when and how the grant money could be used. The money comes from the same agency that pays for highway work — the Federal Highway Administration — and there are rules that come with it. Namely, that everything must be done at once, not parceled out piecemeal. This makes sense for highways — you plan it, you design it, then you build it. But applying the same rules to informational signs is arguably less logical. All 80 signs have to be planned and designed before any could actually be ordered and put up.

DOT representative No. 1 — or was it No. 2? —  took the position that the those rules wouldn’t apply here. But this is where those turnover problems come into play. That person left, and the confusion deepened when the new representative came in with the exact opposite directive.

Then there were other issues, like securing rights-of-way to put posts in the ground.

While the first 22 have been planned, the rest are still in the early stages, so the 22 that have been in a six-year holding pattern aren’t going to come out of it for another year or two.

To be included in the heritage sign program, each site must put up $1,500 on the front end and another $200 every five years for the privilege of boasting a sign. The federal dollars will serve as matching funds.

As an interim measure, Chandler and her team have put together a brochure leading visitors to the sites of future signs, places like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Graveyard Fields, located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Haywood County.

When the heritage area announced the brochure, they said it was a way “to support these early investors in this program.” For those 22 early investors, six years is, after all, longer than one would reasonably expect to wait for a sign that’s been paid for.

But regardless of past hiccups, Matthews and Chandler are both confident that the project is picking up speed like never before.

They are, at least, on the same page, making demonstrable steps towards eventual completion. Since Chandler took the helm, they’ve produced the brochure and put out the call for a project management firm to take over the final stages.

“I think with some of the momentum they have, we’ll get this done pretty quickly,” says Matthews.

By 2013, 80 locations, including key entrances to the area, will have signs that Chandler says will increase tourist traffic and dovetail with marketing efforts to bring these historic sites a higher profile and more visitors.

And it only took nine years.

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