Despite rising costs in food, fuel, and commercial real estate tenancy, struggling businesses are now forced to reckon with the potential removal of outdoor, A-frame advertisements that promote word-of-mouth marketing.
By a roundabout vote of 5-3, the Newburyport City Council Monday night, in accordance with antiquated laws and failure to enable business groups to mandate business regulations, rejected the application of a variance from Licorice & Sloe Company Teahouse of 21 Middle Street to erect a movable A-frame sign at the corner of Middle and State Streets.
State Street is one of the most-trafficked pedestrian and vehicular streets in the city and it’s only natural that boutique stores located “off the beaten path,” in the words of Licorice & Sloe manager Bil Silliker, be allowed to locate a sign that neither impedes pedestrian access nor revokes the spirit of the law.
But after 30 minutes of debate, the council struck Silliker’s plea down.
“The corners are becoming quite crowded and congested,” argued Councillor Larry McCavitt, citing residents called him saying the signs proliferated the downtown. “They are detrimental to the overall appearance of the city.”
I wonder which residents called him. I also find his comment ironic as mere blocks from McCavitt’s home is an intersection filled with signs galore, all of which are placed illegally and nobody is enforcing.
And there’s the nub: The Nov. 3, 2006 ordinance for signs, merchandising, and beautifications on public property, listed in the city code as Chapter 12, Section 1.5, enables businesses to place one movable sign and one merchandise display within one foot of a building’s entrance, subject to a $50 application fee and receipt of a permit which must be posted to each sign and display.
The ordinance charges the “Police Department and/or Building Commissioner” with enforcement; neither wants the job, resulting in dozens of downtown signs and displays that lack up-to-date permits, if any.
I shot this picture a few days ago, showing four A-frame signs along Pleasant Street directing prospective patrons to walk through a courtyard and into their businesses. Perhaps if the courtyard was improved and people had a reason to walk through the courtyard, then the signs could be placed there and wouldn’t be so obtrusive on crowded grassy corners.
Down the street, at the corner of Pleasant and State Streets, you’ll notice on a given weekend afternoon about 20-feet of sidewalk space used by Richdale Food Stores for their hanging t-shirt displays. Richdale’s outdoor advertising is so busy that a store employee is routinely outside to verify nobody walks away with a five-finger discount. I wonder when the City Council will tell Richdale’s they are prohibited from outdoor sales.
How about Vintage Faire of 78 State Street, an antique store that not only displays merchandise on the sidewalk without permits but their A-frame has an old permit affixed? Or Flukes, Finds & Friends of 70 State Street with similar merchandise and a sign, none of which have the requisite affixed permit.
What to do?
In the wake of Councilor Kathleen O’Connor-Ives’ suggestion that the committee on licenses and permits meet with the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and the Waterfront Trust to develop “longer-term consistency” among downtown businesses, and taking the perspective the City Council should focus on legislative actions and not play Big Brother to businesses, I offer the following three suggestions:
- Transfer the permit power for signs, as defined under the city code (Appendix A, Section VIII) to either:
A. Enable additional responsibility to the Licensing Commission which under a 1992 city ordinance (Chapter 9, Section 221) and state law (G.L. Chapter 140) grants licenses to common victuallers and transient food establishments; or
B. Enable the Chamber of Commerce, with a mission “to address the needs of members and be a leader in economic development;” or
- Amend the existing signage ordinance (Chapter 12, Section 1.5) as follows:
A. Increase the application fee to $200 for businesses located off State Street, Pleasant Street, Green Street, and Merrimac Street wishing to place A-frames or merchandise displays on the respective streets perpendicular to their streets of business.
B. Increase the application fee to $400 for businesses located on State Street, Pleasant Street, Green Street, and Merrimac Street wishing to place A-frames or merchandise displays on those respective streets. (My reasoning expands on a newspaper comment here.)
C. Increase violation fees as applicable.
D. Identify a person or department for enforcement.
E. Agree to variances on a case-by-case basis, in coordination with the Licensing Commission and/or the Chamber of Commerce and/or other city departments or boards requiring increased city services, e.g. installation of outdoor cigarette receptacles at business sites, participation in the municipal recycling program if not already a member, meal donations to Council on Aging, etc.
- Address the needs of businesses and improve downtown beautification, not by “preventing people from placing signs in places that would do damage to infrastructure or create problems for pedestrians,” as Ives told the Daily News on July 22, but by working in collaboration with business groups such as the Chamber, Rotarians, Elks, etc.
What do you think?