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When Cheryl Mish saw the new brown-and-white highway signs that said "International Towing & Recovery Museum" on Interstate 24, she started to cry.
"I cried all the way in that morning that they put them up," she said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Look what we got!'"
The Tennessee Department of Transportation installed 10 of the brown guide signs to advertise the towing museum. A sign at exit 178 lists two attractions: the Tennessee Aquarium -- arguably one of Chattanooga's most well-known attractions -- and the International Towing & Recovering Museum -- arguably one of the least-known attractions.
"We're one of the best kept secrets," said Mish, the museum's executive director. "Nobody even knew we were here. This is going to be a tremendous eye-opener."
The number of visitors at the museum has already doubled since the signs went up about two weeks ago, Mish said. The nonprofit organization worked closely with state Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, to go through the process of getting the sign, Mish said.
Venues must meet several requirements to be eligible for a brown guide sign, said Jennifer Flynn, a regional community relations officer with TDOT. Facilities must be a certain distance from the interstate exit, keep certain hours and have a certain number of annual visitors, she said.
Those regulations vary depending on the venue. National historic sites, for example, must be no more than 10 miles from the road, according to TDOT's Supplemental Rules for Guide Signs on Freeways, Expressways and Conventional Highways. State wildlife management areas must be open year-round and see at least 6,000 annual visitors.
TDOT's rules require at least 300,000 annual visitors at an urban museum to qualify for a sign, and the museum must be less than five miles from the exit. But that number can be dropped to 60,000 annual visitors with a written endorsement letter from the local city or county government and a TDOT determination that the sign is essential for proper motorist guidance.
Mish estimated the towing museum sees between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors annually. The building sits about two miles from exit 178. She added that the process took several months to complete. But even if a business goes through that process and meets all the qualifications for a sign, its still not guaranteed a spot on the roadway, Flynn said.
"The federal regulations require minimum spacing between signs and a maximum number of locations that can be signed per the interchange," she said. "So, in the case of downtown Chattanooga, while there may be numerous facilities that qualify for signing at a particular exit, only a few can actually be signed."
That could help explain why some major Chattanooga attractions aren't featured on the brown highway signs. The only other museum in Hamilton County that is featured with brown guide signs is the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, according to TDOT records.
As a campground, Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground doesn't qualify for the brown guide signs -- neither do shopping centers, restaurants, local parks, libraries, nursing homes and a slew of others -- but that's OK with tour guide Chandler Fryar.
"It's mostly the brochures we pass out at the visitors center and our website that play a big role," he said. "We just have billboards on the interstate."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at email@example.com or 423-757-6525.