John McCain lost his bid to become U.S. President, but the memory of his campaign has lived on in Newton County through the billboard prominently displayed along Interstate 20.
However, that vestige of the historic 2008 presidential election will soon be removed to mixed emotions.
The sign, and corresponding property, is owned by local Republican stalwart Clay Newman, who said the McCain/Palin artwork was first placed on the sign around July 2008.The 1.94 acres of land, located at 2765 Access Road, is in the process of being sold to Rides the Wind Custom Conversions, a tow-behind utility trailer vendor. Last Thursday workers were measuring the sign face, preparing it for its replacement message, Newman said.
A long-time Republican supporter, Newman said he put the McCain/Palin message as a donation to McCain’s campaign; at the time, he was a member of the Georgia branch of McCain finance committee.
Because of its size and prominent location, the sign catches the eyes of thousands of motorists traveling along I-20. And as with so many things political, the sign’s presence during and after the election has caused division.
Covington resident Michael Johnson said the sign makes the county appear out of touch.
"Who wants to see a billboard advertise an outdated event of any kind? It makes the county and the city of Covington appear outdated; as if holiday decorations were still wrapped on lamp posts," Johnson wrote in an e-mail. "The McCain/Palin sign tells me a) that the county is a sore loser, b) welcome to Republicanville or c) we don’t care how old our signs are or how out of date they appear."
However, Newman joked Friday he would be sad to see the message taken down.
"I was kind of sad to see it go. I was hoping to leave the sign up and ask "Are you sorry yet?" Newman said with a laugh referring to the voters who cast their ballot for President Obama.
After the 2008 election, Newman said he tried to rent the sign, but the price of its prime real estate was too high — around $6,500 per month. Newman then offered to donate the sign to several charities, churches and businesses. He said he even offered to pay the lighting bill for the sign, but the cost to design and put up a large sign face was still prohibitive — he never had a taker.
So the sign sat, and the memory of the McCain/Palin campaign lived on. Newman said if Rides the Wind hadn’t purchased the sign, he had would have replaced the face with a "Handel for Governor" message. Newman has been a big supporter of former Secretary of State Karen Handel’s bid for the governor’s seat and gladly would have donated the sign to aid in the effort.
While some residents, like Johnson, questioned why the sign was allowed to remain up, the law is pretty clear.
According to most sign laws, including Newton County’s ordinance, content cannot be regulated, nor can the length of time that a sign can remain up, said county Planning Director Marian Eisenberg.
Newton’s ordinance reads: "In accordance with O.C.G.A. Section 16-7-58, this Ordinance does not regulate the length of time a political campaign sign may be displayed or the number of signs which may be displayed on private property for which permission has been granted."
Eisenberg said, as far as she knows, the county hasn’t received any complaints about the sign. Although it’s too large under the county’s new ordinance, it was grandfathered into the law and can remain standing as long as no structural changes are made to it.
In an interesting twist, while the sign is legally allowed, because of its grandfathered status, the large white limousine parked in front was actually illegal. The limousine had a sign on it, and, under the ordinance, vehicles cannot have advertising placed on them.
Newman said he used to hire a Covington Police Department officer to drive him and his wife in the limousine to certain functions. However, he’s now going to lease both of his limos to the officer, who is going to open his own limousine driving business.
As for the actual building, it used to house some of Newman’s 90 antique cars. But once the number of cars outgrew the space, he used it to store equipment from his company, Integrated Power Solutions.
At the Feb. 16 Board of Commissioners meeting, the future land use map was amended to change the property from industrial to commercial, and the property was rezoned from Neighborhood Commercial to Highway Commercial. Rides the Wind will be moving in shortly.
The sign will remain, but its face will no longer bring back visions of a Republican past. Residents will have to decide for themselves whether that’s good or bad.