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Sharpsburg's sign flap, or how what should be easy isn't

February 04, 1997

Paul Carson, owner of Sharpsburg's New Central Restaurant, says he's been in the restaurant business since he was 7, first working in his father's place. He's owned and operated restaurants all over the region, including one that seated 1,000 people. Once, he said, at his eatery in Charles Town, W.Va., he had the pleasure of hosting Mrs. John F. Kennedy.

"She was almost too beautiful to look at," he says.

Now at age 65, Carson says he's not looking to get rich, but just to make a living.

Unfortunately, he's run afoul of Sharpsburg's zoning authorities, who want him to take down the temporary sign that directs people to his place on Cannon Avenue, in what was once the town's Legion Hall. Carson says they'll have to go to court first.

Travel down Sharpsburg's bumpy streets (there's lots of road work going on) and take a look at the sign, at the corner of Main Street and Cannon Avenue, and you can see why it irritates those proud of Sharpsburg's historic appearance.

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It's an illuminated sign like the ones many gas stations and liquor stores use to advertise specials on oil, cigarettes and quarts of Seagrams 7. About five by eight feet, it sits on steel legs and has moveable letters, which in this case direct hungry folk to the New Central.

Carson says he got permission to put up the sign while road work was going on from Charles Wagaman Jr., the town's attorney. Carson says Wagaman rescinded the permission after people began complaining about it.

Carson now knows that his mistake was not getting the okay in writing.

"I took the man's word for it, and I got permission from the property owner (Ronald L. Milburn) to put it up," he said. On Jan. 28, Wagaman sent him a cease-and-desist notice. The attorney didn't return phone calls seeking comments on the matter, but the Sharpsburg council met Monday and indicated it would go to District Court to force the sign's removal.

Carson says he'd be willing to replace the sign with a better-looking one that he would hang on a pole at that corner that was once used for a sign (with a Coca-Cola logo) that directed people to the Legion home, but he says Wagaman's already told him that's impossible.

Carson says he's invested $300,000 in the property and must have some way, other than word of mouth, to let people know where he's located. The present sign may not be pretty, but he says "It's doubled my business."

That's good news after all Carson says he's been through. Zoning approval for the business was delayed several months, he says, when he arrived at two town hearings on the matter, only to find out that there weren't enough members present to meet quorum requirements.

Then came the road work, which at one point closed both ends of Mechanic Street, which meant that people who wanted to eat had to park on Main Street, then walk up the road to his place.

To make ends meet, Carson says he and his wife work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes, he says, if the nighttime kitchen clean-up takes too long, they just sleep in a booth until 4 a.m., when it's time to get up and start cooking again.

It's a hard life, Carson says, but "it's in my blood." Not that he hasn't tried for a transfusion of the spirit. He took a couple of years off and worked construction with his son, building townhouses and office buildings in the Rockville, Md. area.

There were two problems with that. One was increasing traffic on Interstate 70 that made it harder and more dangerous to get to work. One winter his vehicle was struck three times by people who lost control on icy roads. And he missed seeing people.

"You work construction, you see two, maybe three guys a day, the same guys. In this business, you meet somebody new every day, and I love people," he said.

To recap: After giving him permission to turn the old Legion home into a restaurant, town officials (and apparently some residents) don't want to see what they feel is a tacky looking sign.

Carson says he's willing to put up a nicer one, and I have to wonder if those people in the historical past we all cherish really found things without signs of some sort.

Instead of treating this guy like a bad egg, can't someone help him research what a historically accurate sign would look like, and let him put it up so he can get on with business?

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