Frank Fleming is known for drawing legions of fans during his distinguished career in modified racing, and Thursday night a crowd gathered at the Municipal Building to support Fleming in a regulatory dispute with the city government.
It involves a sign he wants to display at a site on Merita Street off U.S. 52-North where a new Frank Fleming Body Shop and Collision Center is being developed. This represents a $2 million expansion of his present longtime location on Springs Road near radio stations WPAQ/WSYD just outside the city limits.
The expansion also will create nine or 10 new jobs in addition to his present force of about 10 employees, Fleming said during a public forum at a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
However, the project — which involves the now-rundown site of a former Winn-Dixie supermarket — is being hindered by another city board’s decision disallowing Fleming’s use of an existing sign displayed by the grocery business before it closed. The body shop owner has sought to re-purpose it in order to draw attention to his new operation.
He has been barred from doing so through a recent vote by a powerful group known as the Mount Airy Zoning Board of Adjustment — a quasi-judicial administrative body whose decisions affect private property rights to the same extent as court rulings.
Its decision is based on a relatively new sign ordinance approved by the commissioners in 2016 whereby signage for new businesses in the city may be no taller than 15 feet. Those already existing were grandfathered in under the measure.
Fleming is appealing the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s ruling to Surry County Superior Court, which is scheduled to hear the case in September, based on information revealed Thursday night.
In the meantime, Fleming, his brother Chris, also a longtime modified racer, and a throng of supporters made their way to City Hall in an effort to have the commissioners approve some amendment to the ordinance or other action allowing him to utilize the sign.
“This will enable me to use an existing sign that is in good condition,” he said during the public forum of Thursday night’s meeting, when the issue was not on the agenda for regular board consideration.
Chris Fleming also spoke on the matter during the forum, recalling how his brother had eyeballed the Merita Street property numerous times when they passed by it, and expressed interest in buying and improving the site.
“We know how bad the property looks now,” Chris Fleming said. “Frank bought the property — but he didn’t know about the sign (restriction).”
Chris also pointed to a safety concern posed by the lack of a tall sign to direct people to the body shop, in which motorists who miss the turn at Merita Street near McDonald’s would have to continue along U.S. 52 and double back to the business. This would require turning into busy lanes of fast-moving vehicles.
“I’m asking you to help Frank help the community,” Chris said of how the sign could contribute to the body shop’s success and aid improvement overall.
The crowd of supporters applauded the brothers’ position and stood up at one point to highlight their numbers.
The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners took no vote on the matter Thursday night, conforming to a regular practice in which issues raised during public forums are not considered during the same meeting. But they agreed to place the matter on the agenda for another meeting on July 21.
In the meantime, city officials did express a desire to find a solution to the impasse and prevent Fleming and the municipality from incurring huge expenses required by a court fight.
“Reasonable people can come up with reasonable answers,” Mayor Ron Niland said.
Niland wasn’t on the city council when the updated sign regulations were adopted in 2016, and said it wouldn’t hurt to have that package reviewed. “Looking at it is a good thing.”
Commissioner Steve Yokeley, who was on the board when the sign measure was approved and voted in favor of it, offered a similar view.
“I thought we had a good ordinance at the time,” Yokeley said, but added that this doesn’t mean it couldn’t be changed.
Commissioner Jon Cawley, who lobbied for the placement of the matter on the July 21 meeting agenda, was more stern in his take on the situation.
“I hope we can find a solution that will be pro-business,” Cawley said. “It never should have gotten to this point.”
One parting remark by Cawley regarding regulations also drew applause from the audience: “What’s good for the city also should be good for the citizens.” Cawley told Fleming that he deserved all the support exhibited Thursday night.
Commissioner Tom Koch also spoke highly of Fleming, saying his body shop had done a great job repairing his car after it was sideswiped while parked.
Still, Niland and other officials emphasized Thursday night that the board can’t just snap its figures and help Fleming without going through proper channels.
Since an ordinance already on the books is involved, changing it would require certain steps including a public hearing, according to the mayor.
Commissioner Joe Zalescik also reminded that an active appeal is under way. “I don’t think we as commissioners should interfere with that,” he said.
“One of the big issues in Mount Airy is signage.”
Support for Frank Fleming’s request also has come from an external source.
While she was unable to attend Thursday night’s meeting, Deborah Cochran, a former mayor and city commissioner, issued a statement to that effect.
“This property has been unsightly over the years and now Frank is bringing it back to life,” Cochran wrote regarding the Merita Street location.
“I wholeheartedly support an amendment to the existing sign ordinance,” added the former city official, who is a candidate for at-large commissioner in this year’s municipal election. “Highway 52 is a thoroughfare and the amendment would allow businesses located 300 feet back off the highway to have a taller sign.”
Cochran expressed confidence that Fleming would make sure it is refurbished in a professional manner.
“Frank has been dealing with this issue for months,” she wrote.
“He moves at lightning speed on the race track — I hope each commissioner will move fast on June 16th and approve this amendment, so Frank can continue taking care of business.”