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King of the road 

38 years of fast dealing, franchising and blaring messages to motorists

Welcome to Adel, Ga., the apex of outdoor advertising.

That isn't what the billboards say. The billboards say something like:

"Western Sizzlin'. Buffet & bakery. Exit Now. Adel."

"King Frog. Citgo. IHOP. Captain D's."


"Exit NOW. King Frog."

We met King Frog, or at least the owner of the trademark familiar to anyone who has run his gauntlet of billboards. His name is John L. Williams, and he is the emperor hereabouts. Why? Because in 1963, he "learned the power of the billboard."

Williams is explaining his 38-year-old revelation as he eases into the well-worn driver's seat of his Mercury Marquis. He turns the key and starts to pull out of the parking lot of the outlet mall where he keeps his office. But the big, brown sedan rolls forward and swings to the right, away from the parking lot exit. We are drifting in a great, slow arc. "What the hell is he doing?" I wonder.

A red VW swerves to miss us; the driver looks crossly in our direction. An old pickup truck stops and waits patiently as we drift by in the first of many concentric circles. And finally it dawns on me that there is a point to this casual careen.

The windshield itself has become a moving billboard; its view changes from every angle, but its message remains the same: Every place you lay your eyes on this flat South Georgia landscape -- the Citgos, the BPs, the Popeyes, the Burger Kings, the motels, the truck stops -- they're all his.

John L. Williams drives like he owns the place because, well, he does.

Jaydee Ager had chaired the Garden Club of Georgia's roadside beautification committee for just a few months in 1991 when the club's president asked her to look into billboards.

For years, the Garden Club had worked with the state Department of Transportation to plant wildflowers and otherwise beautify the state's highways. Under Commissioner Tom Moreland and then Hal Rives, the DOT had been largely sympathetic to their causes.

But in 1991, then-Gov. Zell Miller staged a DOT coup aimed at paying back powerful supporters. He thrust a developer named Wayne Shackelford into the commissioner's seat. Shackelford quickly moved to revive a state program to allow billboard companies to cut publicly-owned trees that were blocking their messages.

Ager's own revelation had begun.

It wasn't easy. What with four kids to raise and the oil crisis of 1973 to contend with, not to mention the pressure of expanding, expanding, expanding, borrowing, borrowing, borrowing.

"I was broke then and I'm still broke," Williams says with a chuckle. "I've sold a motel for a million dollars, and two or three weeks later I've sunk all that money into another project."

He has built a very specialized fiefdom. Conditions had to be just right in places like Williams' hometown, which is 205 miles south of Atlanta. First comes the highway, which provides an ever-growing stream of travelers to Florida. Then, of course, come the billboards, which pump those motorists onto the exit ramps. Then, there are the businesses themselves, mostly franchise operations that provide out-of-state motorists with familiar brands and the franchisee with a proven formula.

But mostly, there is Williams, 66, an astoundingly energetic country boy, who has failed at more business deals than he cares to remember, who never stops talking and never stops thinking, who seems as if he was stamped out of a production line expressly for this purpose. He spends large parts of the day shuttling up and down the interstate toward meetings with sales people, bankers and lawyers, and large parts of his evenings ready to gab on the phone with anyone about business. It's been like that for four decades.

"It's not like you have to be smart or something," he says, when asked how he manages such a farflung operation. "You grow into doing it."

During the '60s and '70s, the Williams kids mowed lawns, cleaned motel rooms, pumped gas. Today, Williams Investment Co. employs all four of his children, his three daughters-in-law, nieces, nephews, great-nieces and cousins, among some 300 employees and many more contract workers.

The company operates some 35 retail businesses on nine interstate exits (mainly in Adel and near Valdosta); holds around 5,000 acres in Cook County and the surrounding area; and leases land and buildings to dozens of other business, farms and families.

Williams is one in a handful of early interstate entrepreneurs who had the energy and grasped the formula to build highway-based empires. And if something got in the way of their growing companies, well, they just massaged the system to make it work better for them. It didn't hurt to build relationships with county commissioners, state DOT officials, governors and senators.

He has the kind of pull that money and relationships can get you. A longtime contributor to various politicians, he's particularly close -- "very, very, very good friends" -- with now-Sen. Zell Miller.

And as we loop down a sandy track that runs under the billboards that line the highway, he alludes casually to the ease with which he wields local. "We came in here and bought up this land," he says. "Then, we got our zoning right."

It is a mantra he repeats several times as we weave through Williams' Cook County holdings: "We got our zoning right."

Years ago, he was a city councilman. Then, he decided, "I wanted to know the politicians, not be one of them."

It's unclear why Shackelford reversed the DOT's effort to hold the line on billboards. (The transportation commissioner, who retired last year, couldn't be reached for this story.)

Was it a Zell Miller payback to big campaign contributors? Was it a cave-in to House Speaker Tom Murphy and his cohorts, who always had battled the DOT over billboards? Was it simply following the wishes of Board of Transportation members who had close relationships with the billboard industry?

All Ager knows is that she was stunned when she first met with him: "He looked us in the eye and said, 'You're going to see a lot of trees in Georgia cut. You can't see Georgia for the trees' and [that] he did not like driving through a 'green plume.'"

"I said [to myself]: 'My God. This is the greatest injustice around.' I just couldn't believe they'd cut down the public trees in public rights of way just to make private money. I just despise to see injustice like that, and that's exactly what this issue involves: injustice."

Back in the '60s, Georgia's billboard laws were weak to nonexistent. If trees sprouted to block the message, Williams and other owners simply armed employees with chainsaws and sent them to out "landscape."

But in the '70s, federal laws restricting billboard sizes, billboard placement and billboard permits trickled down to the state level, and things weren't the same anymore.

No sir, they sure weren't. Not when the state DOT chief decides to punish you for sending out your employees to lop trees off the public right of way. Not when he insists that you be prosecuted as a criminal. Not when you're being held up as an example.

"The made me into a poster child," Williams says. He's referring to the Great Tree Trimming Trials of 1980, when Moreland, the state's by-the-book transportation commissioner, attempted to throw Williams into prison.

"Me and the family were going out West on vacation, and I told these fellas before I left that I wanted some trees cut," he says. According to Williams, the employees went way overboard, slicing 470 trees at waist height all the way from Adel to Valdosta and leaving the carcasses to dry on the right of way.

Soon after Williams returned from vacation, a GBI agent paid him a visit. "I told him, 'Look, my employees did it. They worked for me, and I'm responsible,' " he recalls. "I would have thought that certainly we'd be charged with a substantial fine, and we'd have to clean up the highway."

But Moreland didn't cotton to folks like Williams clearing the way for their billboards. The DOT had the Georgia attorney general bring Williams up on criminal charges for allegedly destroying state property.

"I had to go to court to prove I wasn't guilty of what I'd already told them we did," he says.

It cost some big bucks in lawyers' fees, but Williams beat the rap. He and his employees skirted convictions both on his home turf in Cook County and in a separate trial in Valdosta stemming from the same incident.

Billboard adversaries recall the decade the followed as a golden era of reasonable regulation and less-than-rampant tree trimming. Moreland simply didn't issue tree-cutting permits even though DOT had the power to do so. Williams compares the 1980s to the "moonshine days," because he says so many billboard owners would sneak onto the rights of way and cut trees illegally.

In 1985, Williams' employees again were caught poaching trees. Williams never officially admitted it. A local judge dragged the case along for years before the state finally pushed the issue.

Finally, in 1993, just as Shackelford was opening things up again for legal tree "trimming," Williams signed a decree admitting no guilt, but agreeing to pay $78,000 and never to cut or poison trees illegally again.

That appears to be the last time someone was fined in Georgia for tree trimming. And, after the settlement, Shackelford's DOT immediately granted 31 legal tree-trimming permits to Williams. The DOT was forced later to suspend the permitting system, but Williams says his employees don't sneak onto the right of way to cut anymore -- at least not very often.

"I can't say that we haven't trimmed a damn tree sometime in the last five years," he says, "but it's been pretty minimal."

Ager and the Garden Club ladies didn't make it easy for Shack and the billboard boys to crank up the chainsaws. In the early 1990s, they challenged the DOT's legal authority to resume tree cutting without first convening an advisory council on the matter.

After the cutting began they challenged it in court. And after they lost their lawsuit at the lower levels, they went to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled that the DOT couldn't just give the billboard companies trees that were owned by the taxpayers. The Garden Club finally won, and Ager says something happened that day to her and her Garden Club ladies.

"No other issue has brought us so much public awareness," Ager says. "They don't see us as tea and crumpets anymore. They see us a bunch of determined women dressed in green, marching on the Capitol."

We are rolling up U.S. 41 in the Marquis on another of the widening loops through Williams' Cook County holdings. He is pointing from this side of the road to the other, spinning through the details of land deals the way most of us might talk about moving around furniture.

Over here on the right and then on the left are acres and acres of sandy, gray land that he's cleared, in hopes that it will lure industry. Later, across a large parking lot, there is a massive Citgo truck stop that he built just a couple of years ago. There are fast-food joints, full-service restaurants, property purchased out of default, and property purchased on the open market.

There even is one large swath of land -- around 3,300 acres next to the highway -- that Williams is trying to convert into a wetlands mitigation bank. Closet environmentalist? Hardly. On another slice of land, next to the interstate, in the shadow of the billboards, he dreams of laying out a gigantic RV park, but he'll need the mitigation zone nearby so that the federal government won't get too upset when he backhoes and bulldozes the lowlands for the RV park.

Williams has his own view of what is beauty. Even he isn't happy with the number of billboards that have cropped up on the state's highways (he says regulations are partly to blame for that).

But to Williams, the billboard itself is a thing of beauty. It is hated by "the Sierra Club types" and by newspapers -- because newspapers, he says, see billboards as competition. But it is the heart that pumps motorists onto his exits; it is the vital link between the traveler and the tourism industry.

"Without billboards," he claims, "we might as well pick up and go to the county courthouse, and get a rocking chair and sit there, because without billboards we wouldn't even be in business."

"When you have the communities that don't have a John Williams, they're not harvesting, so to speak, the passing motorists," he says.

Like in Maine, where there are no billboards. "You have an uninformed potential customer," he argues. Last summer, he remembers driving over a ridge that revealed a beautiful view of a mountain.

"I'd like to know what is on the other side of the mountain," he says, lamenting the lack of written guidance. "I'd like to know what I'm looking at."

In 1998, the Garden Club learned how hard a place the state Capitol can be. Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard had been a Garden Club ally, but he backed out of the governor's race and became a lame duck, unable to offer much support in fighting the industry.

Garden Club lobbyists were forced to negotiate a deal with the DOT, billboard lobbyists and pro-billboard legislators. The bill called upon billboard companies to pay the state for each tree they cut. Garden Club negotiators thought they'd gotten a commitment that the DOT would value the trees according to an internationally recognized manual.

But months later Shackelford said that manual wouldn't do the trick. The DOT came up with its own fees, which the Garden Club said ridiculously understated the trees' value. So the clubs sued again, again arguing that tree-trimming represented a giveaway to a private industry.

"The first lawsuit, we talked about it for hours. The second one we talked for a few minutes," Ager says. "We learned something: That you could do something to right a wrong."

We slide up the exit ramp in Cecil, where cylindrical "monopoles" rupture the Earth at their bases and balance huge messages -- "Huddle House," "BUSES WELCOME," "IHOP" -- that tower over a ghost village.

"This," Williams declares, "is a dead exit."

This also is where Williams' business got its start.

In 1963, he already had failed at several businesses -- crop dusting, homebuilding, used-car sales. One day, he hammered together a "lean-to" gas station just seven miles down the road, in Cecil. He put the station at the tail end of the new interstate that was working its way down the spine of lower Georgia.

"There was an old bus-painting barn out behind there," says Williams. "And we took them barn doors and painted 'Gas. Next exit' and put 'em out on the highway."

Cars stopped. Lots of them. So Williams bought six bona fide billboards, put them up and kick-started the empire.

But here in Cecil, things didn't work out. The town refused to run a sewer line out to his property. So, in 1980, Williams shut everything down. Everything. And he redirected the signs seven miles up the road to Adel. Not only did his businesses close, but so did a Stuckey's and a Chevron, which had lived off his advertisements.

We pull over the overpass and into the parking lot. The words "Family World" can be made out on the old electric sign. At one point Williams owned and operated a 110-unit motel, a restaurant and three "high-volume gas stations" at this exit.

It is a truly desolate scene. Pieces of plastic, glass and metal hang from the frames of the vacant buildings. And shards of building materials are scattered across the area.

"It doesn't look very good this way," he admits. "But it sure is a lot cheaper just to leave it up and let it stay."

But Williams isn't the type to dwell on the past, unless he's prodded.

"I'm blessed to say the old master gave me the ability to think about yesterday as gone and today's almost over."

The Garden Club lawsuit seems to be going well. Former state Attorney General Mike Bowers is representing the club -- gratis. The justices, who already have placed a temporary injunction against further trimmings, are expected to hear arguments in May or June.

But, overall, the Garden Clubbers aren't optimistic. A state senator who carries water for the industry (and leases land to a billboard company), Don Cheeks of Augusta, is pushing a bill this session that would, among other things, open up more locations. While that legislation in itself isn't Earth shattering, the endless lobbying by a well-funded, relentless industry appears to be taking its toll.

One and a half years after Shackelford quietly lifted a 70-foot billboard height restriction, the billboard companies are changing the nature of Georgia's three-decade-old billboard dispute by changing the situation on the ground: They're avoiding the prospect of unsightly trees blocking their messages by erecting steel sequoias that tower above even the tallest Georgia pines.

At the same time, the industry may be more formidable than ever. Mergers have concentrated billboard power in the hands of fewer companies.

"What it boils down to is citizens against big money," Ager says. "That's the reason [the victories] swing back and forth. But for the most part, it's not going our way."

So much has changed on I-75 over the last 38 years that it's hard to imagine the old days. Just north of Macon, a work crew is erecting six towering "monopole" billboards in one farmer's field.

They're reported to cost around $40,000 each to install. An electrician on the site says builders drive the pole 50 feet into the ground but still only take a week or so to complete the structure.

While Williams' 175 billboards amount to a fair slice along his stretch of I-75, the national companies count their "advertising faces" by the thousands.

But Williams says he's not worried about the billboard competition. In fact, it's the retail portion of his business -- with its increasing labor and utility costs, and its ceaseless competition -- that concerns him most. He borrows to expand the company, and wheels and deals to keep the cash flowing. But the billboards, "I'm proud to say, are title free."

We are at the tail end of our tour, rattling in the Marquis down the sandy single track near the highway and underneath huge signs that each implore motorists to visit Magnolia Plantation.

"One day, if we sell somebody everything or go out of business," he says, with a certain sense of comfort, "we've got a nice billboard company."

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