In red-orange buzzing neon that grew brighter as the sun slipped past the horizon, the big sign along Hwy. 61 beckoned moviegoers to the Cottage View Drive-In for 46 summers.

Now, the red steel design shaped like a cottage -- replete with a colorful curlicue of metallic smoke popping from its roof -- has grown faded, and a closer look reveals a scattering of rust. What will soon be the remnant of one of the last drive-in movie theaters in Minnesota awaits an uncertain fate.

Planning maps show the sign is earmarked for demolition as part of the site's transformation into a retail development called the Shoppes at Cottage View anchored by a 180,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter. A road project along E. Point Douglas Road near the junction of Hwy. 61 and Innovation Road launching that construction will start in April, with the Wal-Mart expected to open early next year.

But the theater site's owner, Gerry Herringer, has offered the sign to the city, where officials have begun looking at options to save it. Herringer said he doesn't want to see it destroyed.

The cottage design ties in with the name of the community, he said, where "there's a lot of folks that think that sign is kind of a landmark for Cottage Grove."

Fabricated by a Minneapolis company, the gleaming sign was hard to miss. "We wanted something that was kind of flashy, basically," he said. "That was a good-looking rascal when it was working."

With the prospect of development hovering over the site for at least a decade, however, Mann Theaters, which operates the drive-in, has not invested in the sign's upkeep

Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, vows the sign will have refuge with his organization if nothing is done to save it.

"Where is it going to go? That's the question," Peterson said. "We just want to be sure it's preserved. I mean, it's absolutely iconic -- it just says 1950s and 1960s all over. Those types of signs, they're going away fast."

The city, however, has the sign on its radar, though no formal decisions have been made about it, said John Burbank, Cottage Grove's senior planner who also acts as historic preservation officer.

The city has an active Advisory Commission on Historic Preservation, which has raised the issue, and it was briefly discussed earlier this month by the City Council, where Mayor Myron Bailey said that he would like to see the sign somehow incorporated into the new development.

"But nobody's really sat down and talked about it," Burbank said. He expects more formal discussions in coming weeks, and he said the idea of saving the sign has support.

"We would encourage the city to keep the sign as close to the original location as possible," said Erin Hanafin Berg, field representative for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Even though the sign is not a registered historic landmark, keeping it close to where it is would help retain its context in understanding its function and historical significance. And it is historically significant, she said.

Suburbs aren't necessarily known for their historic landmarks, she said, but that doesn't mean they're not there. "You just have to see past a lot of visual clutter," she said. Cities such as Roseville, Shoreview and Eden Prairie have, like Cottage Grove, gone to great lengths to preserve a past rooted in the 19th century. "A lot of these suburbs have more history than just booming in the post-World War II era."

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson