The code hasn’t changed. The laws haven’t changed. But the enforcement has changed when it comes to Coolidge’s sign code, and it has some business owners upset.
The issue arose when the Coolidge Youth Coalition approached Rick Miller, the city’s growth management director in charge of code enforcement, with what they said was the problematic increase in alcohol and tobacco signs around the city. Back in February, teens from CYC’s Students Against Destructive Decisions presented their concerns to the city council, saying the signage was having a bad influence over the youth in the community.
During that presentation, Miller acknowledged that the sign code had not been enforced for a long time, but that he was about to go out and finally get buildings up to code. He acknowledged, however, that he cannot just go after liquor stores and the potentially problematic signs they had on display. He had to go after every business.
So for the past couple months, Miller has been on the lookout for A-frames, banners, deteriorated signs, obsolete signs and anything located in a public right-of-way. He said he talked to 30 different businesses about their code violations.
“I took it upon myself and spent about two weeks starting at Pinkley and going north along Arizona Boulevard and contacted businesses that were not up to code with their signage,” Miller said. “Most of them were very copperative immediately after I contacted them. But there were some who had concerns.”
The results have already been seen as liquor stores like T&L Convenience across from the school district offices and Ruins Drive-Thru have taken down the signs that once covered the buildings.
“There’s been a lot of improvement since the city started to implement the signage code,” said Mayor Tom Shope.
But owners of other businesses are not so thrilled with the results. Several told council that the code enforcement is going to have a negative impact on their abilities to thrive as a business.
“There are a lot of busineeses like mine where product changes,” said Randy Black, owner of Technology USA. “There is not an effective enough way to advertize in this city. I’ve talked to about 20 business people in town, and they’re not happy. The scope that you’re enforcing is ridiculous.”
The sign code states that the purpose is to promote the effectiveness of signs by preventing their overconcentration, improper placement, deterioration, and excessive size and number. It allows for permanently attached signs on the buildings, as well as a detached monument-style sign on the front of the property. But Black said that with such a hostile economy especially in a small town like Coolidge, small businesses need any advantage they can get, which includes whatever signs they can put on their property.
“I think removing those signs from businesses is shooting us in the foot,” Black said. “I haven’t seen a city that is taking this policy to the extent that you’re doing it. We need stuff that attracts to our businesses. … There needs to be some give and take with this.”
Also at issue was the downtown area, which doesn’t allow for much room for detached signs since their buildings run right up to the sidewalk. Linda Henderson owns businesses in the downtown core, including a restaurant on Coolidge Avenue that could open any time. The sign code allows for banner signs for grand openings, but they must be taken down in 30 days. This, Henderson said, is a big burden to a new business.
“As a new business owner, you need a lot of money,” Henderson said. “Permanent signage requires a lot more money.”
Miller came up with a couple possible solutions for the problems raised by these employees. For downtown, he proposed a kiosk that would display the businesses in the area, built in a way where a passing car could see what is around.
“I think an appropriate way of solving this issue would be to have a kiosk sign that has a realprofessional look, listing all the businesses in the district,” Miller said.
Another proposed solution for companies introducing special products or sales would be to allow a certain amount of events per year for each business where they are allowed to put out a sign for a set amount of time. Casa Grande, for example, has a code that allows four special events per year to have signs out for 14 days, with a minimum of 30 days between events.
“They need something,” said Victoria Flatley, speaking as a member of the community. “I’m hoping we can come up with specifications with regard to A-frames and banners that would be allowed by the city. It’s a lot more work, but it’s better than a sharp stick to the eye.”
But no matter what changes can be made to the code, Miller emphasized that it has to be applied consistently. This means not making exceptions for certain businesses that claim to have a special need for signage. Such was the case when Jennifer Schwartz from American Family Insurance told council about the trouble of her building being located so far behind the sidewalk on Arizona Boulevard, hidden behind trees and bushes.
“We want to be business friendly,” Miller said. “But you open a Pandora’s box if you allow for some sign violations and not others. You have to be real careful, or you’re going to start having A-frame signs everywhere.”
Miller also acknowledged that this is a particularly bad time to impose additional regulations on businesses as they continue to recover from the economic recession, but that the recovery will take even longer if nobody wants to come to the city.
“[The code] hadn’t been enforced for a long period of time,” Miller said. “It’s not an easy thing to enforce, given that the economy hasn’t been good for anybody. But the image is important to, what we’re trying to portray to potential investors. I talked to a guy recently at a convention who said you can really tell when you enter a city whether it has a pulse or not. Those communities care about their, about their quality of life.”
There wasn’t only negative feedback from the public during the meeting. Sharon Boyd from CYC gave her appreciation for the work council and city staff did to make the city look better.
“On behalf of the youth I work with in Coolidge, I would like to thank the city and Rick Miller in helping to remove the alcohol and tobacco signage in Coolidge,” Boyd said. “The effect on our kids has been immediate. I hope we can go forward from here and enforce the code that is in place.”
To try to find solutions, the council also had William Keele, the owner of Firefly Signs, come up to speak about the importance of signs to businesses, as well as trends in signing that businesses can use to be more effective.
“Signage is very important to businesses,” Keele said. “A picture and a little text goes a long way.”
Keele said A-frame signs, the main point of contention from many who spoke to council, are actually less effective as they can be easily stolen and not easily read from passing cars.
“There are ways of promoting on a small budget,” Keele said. “If you want to promote your business with some permanent signage, you can do so for the same price of an A-frame.”
A-frames also bring up other issues for cities, such as the threat of them blowing into the street and causing danger for passing vehicles, which could lead to liability for the city because they were not properly enforcing their code.
“When the economy hits real tough, cities have to choose what they are going to focus on,” said Vice-Mayor Gilbert Lopez. “It’s not just about the signs, it’s about safety and a lot of other things. You see that with A-frames where a kid is riding a bicycle, hits the sign and falls onto the street and get hits by a car. It sounds awful, but it does happen.”
The members of the council had differing opinions on where they should go from here when it comes to the code. There was some agreement that some leniencies could be added to the code, but the extent of the changes was up for debate.
“When we came onto the council, one of our goals was to clean the city up, and we’ve certainly done that,” said council member Jon Thompson. “But you don’t want to go so far that you’re destroying businesses. … Businesses are having a tough enough time.”
Council member Steve Hudson, who worked for Garrett Motors and has experience with the Big Event sales model that car dealerships often use, said businesses need to be given a break if Coolidge is going to have healthy commerce.
“Some of these businesses around here can’t afford to purchase advertising in the local newspaper,” Hudson said. “I think we have to look at amending some of them. I don’t think an A-frame sign, if they are professionally done, are a big distraction. … Rules are meant to be bent, not broken.”
Thompson said the problem is the city has never seen the code in effect, so they have to learn.
“I think our code is a bit strict and we just never knew it because we didn’t ever enforce it,” Thompson said. “What I would like to see is getting a group of six or so together to throw around ideas that we can all live with. … This is a pretty important decision when it’s all said and done. Business is the livelihood for all of us.”
Miller said he is completely open to making changes to the code, but he assured council that he will be enforcing it.
“I’m okay with whatever council decides to do,” Miller said. “What I can’t do is pick and choose what signage to enforce and what not to.”
Chamber of Commerce Director Lynn Parsons reached out an olive branch on behalf of businesses, pledging to do her part to come up with a solution.
“I want the businesses here to have a working relationship with the city, so we can work together to keep the city clean,” Parsons said. “Leave open a way for businesses to reach out.”