ST. PETERSBURG — Freedom Bank isn't free to display the American flag on its digital sign. In fact, it got in trouble with the city for doing that very thing.
Freedom's main office at 1200 Fourth St. N is one of about 35 businesses the city has listed as violating its sign code in the last 20 months.
"We put the flag up in September in remembrance of 9/11," said Andy Williams, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg-based bank. "I think it's ridiculous that the American flag cannot be displayed on an electric sign."
Most businesses violated the city's sign code by flashing messages for fewer than the required six seconds. But Freedom was told it violated the ordinance by airing a picture instead of words.
"Whereas graphics on a static (non-digital) sign are permitted, the code currently prohibits graphics on 'electronic message centers,' " said city zoning official Philip Lazzara. The City Council has had one workshop about its sign ordinance and plans another, though the date isn't set. "During the process of their review, council may decide to pursue either tightening or loosening the current regulations for EMCs," Lazzara said.
The rules are aimed to limit possible distractions to drivers and to keep the city's streets from becoming cluttered with lighted pictures.
Eleven residents emailed Mayor Bill Foster after the digital sign at Northeast Animal Hospital displayed his email address and stated that the city wouldn't allow the business to show pictures of dogs and cats.
"In this economy, it is important to permit respected businesses in our community to attract new customers in new and creative ways," one resident wrote.
"The display of LED graphics and images of our favorites vets and pets is yet another improvement to the ongoing restoration of the Fourth Street corridor," stated another e-mail. The writer added that his 18-year-old cat approved of the message. Four residents expressed gratitude that the city was cracking down on digital graphics.
Mark Scribano, a vet and owner of the animal hospital, got a permit for his sign and admits he didn't read all of the ordinance, including the fact graphics are not allowed. His application stated he paid about $30,000 for his sign. He thinks the permitting office should have realized he was installing a sign that allowed graphics and wishes they had alerted him to the restrictions deep in the ordinance.
"If you want a sign with just text, it's about half the cost. When I'm putting this sign in, they knew I'm expecting to put images up," Scribano said. "I'm glad they're here. I want things done tastefully. ... But I don't understand some of their reasoning."
He doesn't believe that graphics on digital signs that are the size and proportions allowed by the city are distracting to drivers or garish.
Some cities such as Pinellas Park and Seminole have bans against other forms of advertising that could be distracting to drivers: people who stand on sidewalks and hold signs to attract attention to specials on pizza, tax preparation, computer repair or whatever they are advertising. In the past year, more and more businesses have implemented this low-cost way of driving customers to their doors. Some sign holders partake in "sign spinning" or throwing and twirling the sign like a baton.
St. Petersburg's sign ordinance states that signs held by the hand of a person and not attached to any pole or object are exempt from any regulation. But that too could change as the City Council rethinks the current sign ordinance.
"Council may consider prohibiting them or introducing time, manner, or place restrictions on such signs," Lazzara said.
Unincorporated areas of Pinellas County are allowed to have pictures on digital signs as long as they stay for 60 seconds before changing, according to code enforcement director Todd Myers.
Williams said although the bank is frustrated by the current ordinance, it is following the rules and not airing a graphic of the flag or any other image.
"I think it ridiculous for a locally owned business to not be able to fully use an electronic sign to its potential to market to customers," he said.
"Business people are really stretching it right now trying to keep people employed and trying to stay alive," he said. "I think the city has a great opportunity to show small businesses their support similar to many of the surrounding municipalities and realize the impact it has on creating jobs by staying innovative. I think we can keep the streets of St. Petersburg looking good and keep up with the economic environment if the approach is logical and solution based."
Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.