Dan Leap, rock-and-roll city councilman, fights for Merriam's dull downtown shopping strip his way.

Headbanger's Mall 

Dan Leap, rock-and-roll city councilman, fights for Merriam's dull downtown shopping strip his way.

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Leap's current project, Pompous Jack, is not overtly Christian and at the moment lacks a singer. Leap hasn't had much luck with singers over the years -- as a breed, they've proven to be flaky. He dabbled in the country scene after meeting a vocalist he found agreeable, but their friendship outlasted the musical partnership. "He's a rock and roller," the singer, Kevin Barnes, says. "He wasn't happy doing it."

The shop is a result of Leap's inability to find musicians who take the creative process and the business side as seriously as he does. "That's why I started doing the guitar lamps, because I don't have to depend on three other guys to make my vision happen."

But Mechanical Art is not a hub of activity. One hand can track the daily customer count. Leap sells most of his lamps by mail. To supplement his income, he teaches 15-year-olds to play guitar, half an hour for $10.

But the slow business allows Leap to concentrate on another obsession -- Merriam Drive itself.

The town's main thoroughfare is a dull place. Most businesses are like the heating and cooling shop, utilitarian stores unlikely to attract much foot traffic. An exterminator works out of the shop three doors down from Total Comfort. A moving and storage company occupies a red-brick schoolhouse built in the late 1800s. Automotive-related businesses (body shops, parts stores, etc.) dominate the strip. Even the bar, Talladega Tavern, has a racing theme.

Apart from the schoolhouse, it's hard for a stranger to imagine the downtown that might have existed before the advent of freeways and the arrival of Wal-Mart. A painting of Merriam Drive circa 1940 shows a café, a grocery store, and a pool hall. How best to recapture those quainter days is a question that has consumed Merriam in the past few years.

Voters approved the concept of bettering the "Downtown Historic District" when they passed a one-eighth-cent sales tax in 2000. The money has built a farmers market and paid for monument signs. But arguments over further changes have separated the locals into two factions.

One group thinks that handsome sidewalks will attract more pedestrians and more business. Another group thinks that narrowing the street for the sake of nonexistent foot traffic makes little sense.

Leap and his father belong to the latter group. They dread losing on-street parking, which will vanish once the sidewalks expand to a width of 13 feet. "Nobody uses the 8-foot ones we got now," Leap says as he stands at Total Comfort's front window and looks at the empty pavement. "They think it's going to be beautiful and all these people are going to walk. But where are they going to walk to? We got automotive-repair places. We got termite-treatment places. We got heating and cooling ... people do come in here and buy filters, but, you know, they park here, come in, get what they need and leave. It's a 5-minute deal."

Moments later, he walks out Total Comfort's front door with his docile Dalmatian, Roxy. As soon as her paws hit the pavement, Roxy squats in the catcher's position. "See, there's a use for the 13-foot sidewalks," Leap says as the dog pees on the sidewalk.

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