Nine years of being told no wasn't enough to deter Paul Kieffer from his fight for a sign on U.S. 52.
The owner of Rochester's Red Wing Shoes vowed to himself he would keep trekking to the Capitol until he convinced lawmakers.
"I figured I would go up there every year until I won. I thought maybe they'd get sick of me," he said.
Kieffer's determination paid off. In May, lawmakers approved a bill allowing Kieffer to have a sign installed advertising his store on northbound U.S. 52 near the 37th Street Northwest exit. That meant going against the Minnesota Department of Transportation's long-standing guidelines, which only allow these types of signs in rural areas. Even then, retail shops are not permitted to be on these signs.
Last month, Kieffer's blue sign was installed on U.S. 52 at a cost of $854, according to MnDOT District 6 spokesman Mike Dougherty. The Rochester businessman picked up the full cost of the sign.
The battle over the sign dates back to 2005, when noise barriers were installed along U.S. 52. Kieffer, whose business sits along the highway, said it was not unusual for truckers to see the Red Wing Shoes sign along U.S. 52 and exit to visit the store. But once the noise barriers went up, Kieffer said his business lost valuable visibility. He estimates his sales dropped by 10 percent to 15 percent.
So Kieffer approached MnDOT about getting what's called a "specific services sign." The department determined Red Wing Shoes did not meet the department's criteria. Kieffer appealed that decision to MnDOT's External Sign Variance Committee. The committee upheld the department's decision. That's when Kieffer turned to state lawmakers for help.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, agreed to introduce a bill in 2007 to force MnDOT to install the sign. Senjem served on the Rochester City Council when the noise barriers along U.S. 52 were approved, and he was worried then that businesses would end up suffering as a result.
But while Senjem backed Kieffer's cause, he wasn't optimistic."It's one of those bills honestly you don't think has a snowball's chance. You don't expect it to pass," he said.
Senjem's first three attempts to get the bill passed went nowhere. He introduced it again in 2013 and got a hearing before the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee on March 4, 2013.
As expected, an official from the Minnesota Department of Transportation testified against the bill.
Peter Buchen, with MnDOT's Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology, told lawmakers the agency maintains 400,000 signs statewide and that these sorts of signs are meant to inform motorists of services they may need for a trip, such as food, gas and lodging.
If the Red Wing Shoes sign was OK'd, Buchen warned lawmakers that "we anticipate we would receive a tremendous increase in requests for retail businesses, and we're not sure how we would be able to handle such a thing."
To Senjem's surprise, committee members sided with Kieffer.
"It was just like a runaway freight train at the committee table in terms of their support for signage for this person," he said.
Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said during the hearing, it seemed reasonable to allow the sign because the noise barriers that MnDOT had installed hurt the visibility of Kieffer's business.
"People pay good money for location. That's oftentimes why you buy real estate," he said.
Ultimately, the committee approved the bill's inclusion in a larger transportation bill, which went on to pass and receive the governor's signature.
Kieffer is thrilled to finally have his sign.
"A lot of folks (have mentioned the sign)," he said. "I think it's even brought in new business."
As for the concern this precedent could lead other retailers to ask for a sign, Senjem acknowledged that could be an issue. But he said the effort required to get such an exemption may deter those requests. Without Kieffer's dogged determination, Senjem said this bill would never have passed.
He added, "It shows the power of one person and persistence."