Coca-Cola sign dispute roils downtown BR _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- The historic downtown Coca-Cola sign is shrouded during a dispute of ownership.

For more than fifty years, a massive antique Coca-Cola sign has overlooked Third Street in downtown Baton Rouge, serving as an historical reminder to the rapidly changing landscape.

But on Wednesday, the building owner blanketed the well-known sign, demanding money for the ad space for the suddenly in-demand building.

The sign sits atop a building at the corner of Third Street and Florida Boulevard, which was vacant for several years, and reopened in a high-profile ribbon cutting for the new Raising Cane’s. Last week, Coca-Cola finished a $20,000 renovation of the sign to restore it to its former glory.

Mike Crouch, who bought the building in 2013 through MDC Properties and is leasing it to Cane’s, contends he owns the sign and deserves to be compensated for insurance, maintenance and ad space. But Coca-Cola says that the sign is owned by the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge and that the company has worked or years with the Arts Council to maintain the sign.

Downtown advocates say the sign is less an advertisement than it is a historical monument for the storied downtown area and one of the last remaining versions of the Coca-Cola sign in the country.

An attorney for Crouch sent a letter to Coca-Cola, Raising Cane’s, the Arts Council of Baton Rouge and the Downtown Development District notifying them the sign was being disconnected from its power source and covered on Wednesday.

“The sign will be uncovered and can then be relit once an agreement is reached with MDC Properties regarding the use of the sign,” attorney James Clary Jr. wrote.

The letter stated the agreement must include provisions to cover property and liability insurance and maintenance of the sign and sought an agreement under which MDC Properties would be paid “market-rate advertisement charges for use of the sign.”

The letter further took issue with recent efforts by Coca-Cola to restore the sign without obtaining Crouch’s consent.

“For reasons which totally escape us, some recent restoration and refurbishing work on the sign was performed without the permission or consent of MDC Properties — even though Mr. Crouch reached out to Coca-Cola on this very issue months ago. Any prior agreements and covenants with regard to the sign have been abrogated for many years,” Clary wrote.

Melanie Clark, vice president of marketing for Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Baton Rouge, said the sign is the last original version of its kind.

“There are no other signs like this in the United States,” she said. “Truthfully, I’m shocked Mr. Crouch would treat this historic icon in such a cavalier manner. It’s very delicate and in great peril of being damaged because of the way it’s currently being handled.”

Clark said Coca-Cola worked with the Arts Council, which she identified as the sign’s owner, and the Downtown Development District to restore the sign.

Representatives from the Arts Council did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said the sign has been around since the 1950s when the building was a drugstore.

“It’s an iconic structure,” he said. “The fabric of the street is changing with new buildings and renovations, but the sign is part of Third Street’s history.”

Clary declined to answer questions but offered a prepared statement from Crouch, which said he is committed to preserving the historical integrity of the sign.

“All of the details regarding that preservation will be addressed in due course and all will be well,” Clary said.

The building was previously owned by Elvin and Joycelynn Richoux, who owned Richoux’s Restaurant. The Richouxs donated the sign to the Arts Council in 2002, with an agreement that the Downtown Business Association would pay for the insurance and electrical costs for the sign.

Clary refused to comment on why Crouch believes he is the rightful owner, but other parties involved in the dispute said Crouch is contesting the legal “act of donation” documenting the change of ownership.

Chris Odinet, a property law professor at the Southern University Law Center, said the act of donation was not in “authentic form” because it did not appear to be notarized or include witnesses which is required to donate immovable property.

The act of sale from former owner Danny McGlynn to Crouch states the sale included the building and any rights McGlynn might have had to the Coca Cola sign.

McGlynn, in an interview, said Crouch’s team acknowledged during the sale that they wouldn’t have ownership of the sign. He said Crouch negotiated a $15,000 price reduction on the building cost when he realized the sign wasn’t included.

“Our intent was always to donate that sign for the purpose of the public and downtown,” McGlynn said. “He’d be hard-pressed to deny that he didn’t know about it.”

Metro Councilman John Delgado, who owns a bar on Third Street near the building, said he was appalled by the move.

“This is a disgraceful attempt to make money by attempting to hold a cultural landmark hostage,” he said.

Delgado said if the issue isn’t resolved soon, he would propose an ordinance to penalize “anyone who covering a downtown landmark creating an eyesore,” for more than seven days.