The future of a $10 million travel center proposed near the interstate in Ankeny rests with the City Council, which in August will be asked to decide whether to allow a 67-foot pylon sign to be erected on the development site.

Officials with Casey’s General Store Inc. are considering development of a travel center at Southeast Corporate Woods Drive and Southeast Convenience Boulevard east of Interstate Highway 35 in Ankeny. The development would include a 7,770-square-foot convenience store, fuel stations and more than 40 parking space for semitrailer trucks, a site plan submitted to the city shows.

The land for the proposed development sits about 22 feet below the grade of the interstate.

 

Casey’s wants to install a 67-foot-tall pylon sign – about three times as tall as a typical two-story house – to grab the attention of motorists traveling on the interstate’s north- and southbound lanes.


Casey’s officials worked with a national trade association and sign experts to determine the size the sign needed to be to be seen by interstate travelers, Douglas Beech, Casey’s corporate lawyer, told the Plan and Zoning Commission this month.

"This sign is not one inch larger than the minimum it needs to be to let it be seen by the traffic to get off the interstate," he said.

Commission members expressed concerns over the sign’s proposed height and whether a precedent would be set if the structure were allowed to be installed.

"I understand that this is a low spot. … I definitely understand the value that Casey’s brings to this community," said Trina Flack, a commission member.

A lot of land is yet to be developed along the 36th Street corridor, near the development, she said. "This sign sets a precedent moving forward. … To me, it just becomes a slippery slope and this is just a big sign. I’m not comfortable with it."

The commission denied a request to amend the area’s existing Planned Unit Development guidelines to allow the construction of the pylon sign. The request to amend the guidelines was made by Knapp Elwell LLC, which owns the land, and by Casey’s.

The current development guidelines for the area don’t allow pylon signs; monument signs in the development area can be no taller than 18 feet, according to city documents.

Other area cities that allow interstate signs have guidelines that state the structures can be no taller than 30 feet above the interstate grade, a survey done by Ankeny officials shows. The sign proposed by Casey’s would be 22 feet taller than signs at  Ankeny businesses Karl Chevrolet and Bob Brown GMC, both of which are 47 feet tall, the review showed.

Knapp Elwell LLC has owned the parcel for more than 20 years, said Chris Murray, CEO and president of Denny Elwell Co. The ground previously was owned by an aviation show that closed because of financial difficulties.

The parcel was part of a larger area owned by the partnership between land developers William C. Knapp and Denny Elwell, Murray said. The partnership previously owned the land where the Iowa Department of Transportation is located at 6310 S.E. Convenience Blvd. and the Hampton Inn and Suites at 6210 S.E. Convenience Blvd.

 

The partnership installed sewer, water and roads in the area over the years, Murray said.
Kreg Enterprises Inc.’s new headquarters is under construction in the area and Hubbell Realty Co. recently completed work on a new flex industrial building. Other industrial warehouses are located west of the interstate.

"This is becoming a hub and distribution area," Murray said. "This service center is something all of those businesses – and future businesses – desire to have in the area."

The tract Casey’s is interested in developing has a challenging topography, he said. "There’s a 22-foot drop from the interstate. … We really haven’t been able to find anyone interested in the land."

Murray said the sign is necessary to attract travelers on the interstate.

"Casey’s is concerned that the Hampton Inn will block some visibility," he said. "Coming from the south, the site will be difficult to see because of the way the interstate is built. To be successful, Casey’s needs to have people coming off the interstate."

Commission members, though, questioned whether technology lessens the need for large signs. 

"What perplexes me is that we’re talking about a sign and it makes it feel like we’re back in the 1990s when we didn’t have internet or Google or a phone to tell us what facilities are nearby or where a business is at," said Todd Ripper, a commission member. "Your whole business is relying on a 67-foot sign. …

"Travelers on the interstate don’t just look at a sign and then all of a sudden decide to pull off. They already know what’s ahead of them."

Casey’s, a Fortune 500 company whose corporate headquarters is located in Ankeny, has several travel centers scattered around the 16 states in which it does business, a company spokesperson said.

"Given the development in the area and traffic, we think a Travel Center will allow us to provide the best service to guests," the spokesperson said. "We can’t emphasize enough how we’d like to continue to invest in the Ankeny community. It’s our home base with the Store Support Center located here and hundreds of team members in the area as well as community investment over decades.

"We have to have the sign to develop the site."

The City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the issue at its Aug. 17 meeting. After the hearing, the council is expected to make a final decision on whether to allow the 67-foot-tall pylon sign.