ST. PETERSBURG — John Spiering doesn't get it. He sees shade umbrellas and A-frame signs along Beach Drive, where businesses flourish. Yet he's not allowed to have the same attention grabbers on the west end of Central Avenue, an area city administrators say needs more retail activity.
Sales have dropped 50 percent since city codes forced him to remove a Boar's Head standing umbrella and an A-frame sign from in front of his New York Cafe, the small-business owner said.
"I put my life savings into this and find it frustrating, to say the least," Spiering said.
He opened his New York-themed restaurant at 6630 Central Ave. in January 2012 because he thought the area didn't have enough dining choices. Business grew slowly but surely for more than a year as the red umbrella beckoned to customers and a miniature Statue of Liberty drew more attention.
Spiering, 42, moved here from New York after his wife died of cancer several years ago. He thought Floridians would embrace a restaurant that paid homage to the Big Apple with menu items like the Broadway Joe roast beef sub, the Upper West Sider veggie panini, a Derek Jeter turkey and Swiss sandwich, and the Streisand bagel and lox.
"Many new customers came in and said they never would have known we were there if it not for the bright red umbrella that caught their eye," Spiering said.
In April, he was cited for code violations and faced fines of $500 unless he removed the umbrella, sign and Lady Liberty.
"The day after I pulled everything, my business hit the floor. Everyone thought we were closed or couldn't tell we were there," he said.
A-frame signs are allowed on streets deemed to be in pedestrian areas. Umbrellas are allowed where they aren't considered visual distractions to traffic. The section of Central Avenue where New York Cafe sits isn't zoned for either.
"The sign regulations adopted by the City Council are intended to establish minimum standards for an orderly system of signs ... that contributes to the economic well-being, visual appearance and overall quality of life in the city," said Philip Lazzara, St. Petersburg zoning official.
Not only are signs, umbrellas and the like restricted because of visual impact, they are controlled in order to reduce distractions and safety hazards for drivers, he said.
Because motorists drive faster on west Central Avenue than they do on Beach Drive, visual distractions are more restricted.
But because they are driving faster, signs are necessary to get a business noticed, according to Bianca Natal, who owns Gypsy Queen furniture consignment and antique store at 7255 Central Ave.
"People fly by at 55 and they hit the bridge at Treasure Island and they know to slow down" because police often give tickets there, she said.
"Of course code violations are a nuisance, but the bottom line is if you're wrong, you're wrong," she said. Natal is pleased, however, with the quick response from the city when she explained speeding was impeding her business. The city is doing a speed survey to determine whether drivers are surpassing the 40 mph limit in front of her store. Traffic officials have told her that if the study finds a need, the speed limit will be more strictly enforced.
Dave Goodwin, the city's planning and economic development coordinator and a key proponent of the Central Avenue Revitalization Plan, could not be reached for comment.
Natal is considering buying the building she leases, but "it really depends on the support of the community," she said. "As a small-business owner, that's the premise of being able to continue here."
Spiering recently invested in a pizza oven and has added pies to New York Cafe's menu.
"I'm not a troublemaker," he said. "I'm just desperate to survive as a small-business man that has invested lots of money, blood, sweat and tears."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8785.