TRAVERSE CITY — Cookie Thatcher doesn’t have an M-22 sticker on her car’s bumper, and the state highway emblem doesn't often catch her attention.
But a series of thefts and corresponding sign replacements may soon have Thatcher and area visitors doing a double take.
Michigan Department of Transportation officials have begun hanging signs that read simply "22" in locations where vandals have repeatedly stolen the iconic M-22 road signs from alongside the beloved roadway where it snakes along Lake Michigan’s shoreline through Grand Traverse, Benzie and Leelanau counties. The simpler signs are an attempt to curb a growing number of thieves who abscond with the traffic markers.
Thatcher, owner of Bay Lavender Trading Company in Glen Arbor, just east of M-22, said thefts of the popular sign have been an issue for as long as she can remember.
“Those signs have been stolen for ages, even before the M-22 store made it their logo,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to have a whole new line.”
The owners of the M-22 stores in Traverse City and Glen Arbor did not immediately return calls for comment regarding the change in signage.
James Lake, Michigan Department of Transportation communications representative, blamed the disappearing signs on the roadway’s fame.
“It’s certainly a popular route for travelers and there are some companies marketing M-22 signs themselves and other memorabilia and that seems to factor into their popularity,” he said.
Callers and MDOT officials notice and report a few stolen road signs each year, typically along stretches of road between towns where thieves have opportunities to steal the placards without being spotted, he said. Lake said signs typically are stolen from Leelanau County.
Workers at a state sign production facility in Atlanta create the “22” signs at a cost of between $325 to $350, including materials, production and installation, Lake said. The cost for an “M-22” sign is about the same. Lake hopes the thieves will not show the same interest in the new signs.
“We hope people would understand our interest in protecting taxpayer investments in protecting these signs and realize if they’re interested in M-22 merchandise, it’s for sale,” he said.
Beryl Skrocki, owner of Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak in Empire laughed when she heard of the recent sign heists and new replacements.
“That’s so funny,” she said. “I think it’s awful our tax dollars have to pay for it, but I don’t think it will affect anybody finding their way about.”
Flocks of motorists follow the signs to get to Leelanau County, and with the water, beaches and other natural beauty, County Administrator Chet Janik expects the traffic will continue to flow regardless of what the signs say.
“I don’t think a change in the sign design will stop people from coming to Leelanau County,” he said.