Dr. Jessica Ange of Sylva enjoys sporting on the back of her Subaru Outback the colorful black and green Great Smoky Mountains National Park license plate, with its emblematic black bear head and background of green mountain peaks.
She’s honest enough to admit her enjoyment comes not just with supporting the Smokies; it’s also simple fact that the plate looks really cool. And, Ange isn’t sure if she would have paid the extra $30 a year, at least originally, if the plates were any less striking.
“Since I’ve already gotten one of the park plates, I might now continue on to support such a good cause,” Ange said. “So that’s part of the allure — but I don’t know if I would have initiated getting one to begin with if the plates were less colorful.”
That’s a choice Ange might soon have to make, however, because of a new law that attempts to standardize the state’s specialty plates to a uniform template.
Could changes hurt sales?
The Smokies specialty license plate costs motorists such as Ange an extra fee of $30 per year. Of the fee, $20 goes to Friends of the Smokies to support efforts to preserve and protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The remaining $10 goes into the Special Registration Plate Account, which supports the following: issues and handling of special plates, N.C. State Visitors Centers, travel and tourism advertising, highway beautification and travel accessibility for disabled people.
Friends members worry new regulations for special license plates could squelch sales. A new state law will eliminate the full-color designs for specialty plates. Instead, an emblem for the group will be shoehorned into one small corner of the plate, with just room to accommodate a logo.
The new law starts in 2015. But, in actuality, new designs will hit the roads when the existing inventory of specialty plates runs out — which has happened, or is about to happen, according to Marge Howell, spokeswoman for the state Division of Motor Vehicles.
Holly Demuth, North Carolina Director of the Friends of the Smokies, said she understands that the stock for the bear license plates has indeed run dry, and that sales have been suspended.
The Friends group is working with DMV on a transitional-plate design — one that isn’t quite as austere as the new 2015 law would require. It would still feature a black bear, but the plate is less colorful than the current design. The hybrid design will fill the gap until 2015, when the future stark reality of the state’s specialty license plates becomes official.
Last year alone, the sale of specialty plates raised $385,000 for Friends of the Smokies, said Friends board member Steve Woody. All of the money raised was spent on the North Carolina side of the park, including the Parks as Classrooms project, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center displays, the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center at Purchase Knob, helping fund the hemlock woolly adelgid battle and even to help bring back elk into Cataloochee, Woody said.
“It was a surprise to us when the state said it wanted to change the plate,” Woody said. “It had been approved by both the Highway Patrol and the manufacturer.”
Woody said surveys have shown 40 percent of sales are by people “who buy because they like the plate.”
Pat Steinbrueck of Sylva said that when she and husband, Steve, moved here from Pennsylvania a few years ago, the colorful Smokies plate “caught my eye right away — it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a pretty plate and support a good cause.”
Several of the nonprofit groups with specialty plates in the mountains have formed a coalition to lobby legislators to reconsider gutting the plate design.
“We are trying to convince the people in Raleigh to keep them the way they are,” said Joyce Cooper, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I think if they take the color off of them it will destroy the beauty and the interest that people have. They are so attractive, that’s what makes people want to have them.”
The cool factor of sporting a specialty plate indeed seems to be a driver for those buying them. Case in point: after the Smokies redesigned its original specialty license plate — a turquoise and pink color scheme with a silhouette of trees — to the iconic black bear design, sales skyrocketed. Friends of the Smokies saw the number of its license plates on the road increase by more than 50 percent after introducing the new design.
The Friends plate, launched in 2000, was the first in a subsequent explosion of colorful specialty license plates in the state. In addition to “First in Flight” standard plates, North Carolina issues 216 other specialty plates, including a hiker on the Appalachian Trail plate, a scenic mountain road on the Blue Ridge Parkway plate, and an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The problem comes with some of the 25 full background specialty plates now decorating cars on North Carolina’s roads and highways: Highway Patrol troopers have said some of the plates are difficult to read, increasing the difficulty of keeping the motoring public safe.
Yet this year, the legislature approved an additional 25 or so full-color plates — the same lawmakers, and in the same bill, that phases out full-color plates.
Micah McClure, a designer for The Smoky Mountain News, designed the popular black bear Smokies plate. It replaced the older plate which sported pink and turquoise curly-cue letters. He’s attempting now to design the “transitional” plate. McClure said that it’s not an impossible task to create a beautiful specialty tag and meet law enforcement needs, too.
Color choice is critical, he said, as is contrast and not “making it too busy” with too many graphic elements. McClure said that he’d noticed during the weekend a N.C. Tennis Foundation specialty license plate, with dark blue lettering on a dark green background, and understood instantly why law enforcement officers have been complaining.
“There has to be legibility for law enforcement,” McClure said, “You couldn’t read it. But if the contrast is there, then there shouldn’t be a problem.”
The Parkway plate has navy lettering on a yellow background, for example. That color contrast makes it is easy to read, as is the Smokies’ — dark blue on light green.
Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, said getting a specialty license plate approved in North Carolina proved “an incredible political process” to undergo. That Friends group wanted one of the full-color plate designs. But Dixon was told the state wasn’t approving any more of those, and the only design she could have was the new kind with a tiny logo in the corner.
“It was disappointing to us,” Dixon said.
It was also quite confusing to Dixon, because the state did indeed approve full-color plates for certain groups — around 25 or so — including plates for anti-abortion groups, N.C. Mining and Carolinas Credit Union Association.
The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has started selling its plate already, but it must obtain 300 prepaid applications before the DMV will start manufacturing them, a job that is done by prisoners in state correctional facilities.
Specialty plates by the number
Friends of the Smokies
• raised $2.5 million since 2000 in N.C.
• almost 20,000 plates on the road.
Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation
• raised $2.9 million since 2004
• 27,000 plates on the road.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
• $586,000 since 2004
• more than 5,000 plates on the road.
• Need to sell 300 before the state will manufacture and distribute; have sold about 150 since 2004. No plates on the road.
• More than 4,000 plates on the road
• Raised more than $200,000 since 2003