LARGO — The business sign in front of 1200 Starkey Road rises at least 25 feet into the air. ALL ABOUT GRILLS, it reads, referring to a closed business. Red and yellow flames draw drivers' eyes to the roadside sign.
The tall sign could easily be reused by the building's next tenant — it's the most colorful thing on a stretch of road that's not exactly scenic. But the man who owns the sign will be forced to replace it before long, costing him thousands of dollars.
"My tenants don't have the money. I don't have the money," says John Ardolino, who owns several commercial properties in Largo. "Landowners and small business people have really been getting hammered in this recession, but the city doesn't seem to care."
In the next few years, many Largo business owners will find themselves in the same predicament. By 2017, all Largo businesses that have signs mounted on poles will be required by law to replace them with low-profile monument signs. The city is cutting down on what it calls "visual clutter."
But many Largo businesses are unaware of this city ordinance. That became apparent last week when the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce held a forum during which Largo officials and local sign companies could inform business owners about the law's specifics.
The few business owners who showed up were not pleased about the idea of shelling out money for new signs.
"When does it stop? When do you stop getting in people's pockets?" Ardolino asked officials during a discussion of city permit fees for new signs.
Robert Klute, Largo's assistant community development director, explained the reasoning behind the rule. "If you feel strongly about it, I urge you to contact your commissioner," Klute told Ardolino.
In June 2007, Largo commissioners passed a citywide ban on pole signs. They gave businesses 10 years to replace their signs. The deadline of June 2017 is about 3 1/2 years away.
Scores, if not hundreds, of signs still must be replaced all over the 18-square-mile city.
Since the law was passed, Largo's elected officials haven't shown any interest in changing it. The goal is to reduce sign clutter and improve the look of the city. That's why Largo wants to eliminate tall signs on poles and replace them with monument signs that hug the ground.
Back when the law was passed, there was push-back from the business community. Some merchants chided the city, saying it was trying to become a Dunedin, Safety Harbor or Belleair.
At last week's forum, Klute and other officials went over some details in the law:
• Monument signs can be no taller than 8 feet.
• Largo allows digital message boards on business signs.
• Businesses alongside elevated parts of U.S. 19 can have tall pole signs so that they'll be visible to passing traffic. Clearwater is doing the same thing.
• High-rise buildings are allowed to have larger signs on their facades.
• Regional shopping centers such as Largo Mall can have pole signs. The mall's pole sign along Seminole Boulevard is 47 feet tall.
Cole Robinson, an account manager at Creative Sign Designs of Tampa, spoke at the forum, seeking to convince business owners that a brand new 8-foot monument sign is a cost-effective source of advertising.
But business owners such as Bobby Sherman, president of Essentials Massage Retreat on East Bay Drive, aren't necessarily fans of monument signs. "You can't read them from the street," Sherman said.
As for Ardolino, he argues that Largo's sign law was passed during a different time, when the economy was booming. "I've had to reduce rents," he said. "I'm trying to keep people in business."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.