LARGO — In an economy where every customer counts, many local business owners would like to begin turning to special signs and other roadside attractions, like balloons, to lure in extra sales.
But with Largo's nearly 3-year-old sign ordinance prohibiting most eye-catching gimmicks holding fast, many merchants are out of luck and putting up a fight for the right to enhance storefront advertisements.
"It's been real tough. The sign ordinances don't allow us to properly advertise our business," said Steve Geltzer, manager of Goodyear Tire Center at 1706 Clearwater-Largo Road N. "The thing about it is having some sort of eye-catching sign or device that will drive business."
Under current Largo codes, most businesses are restricted to a single sign on a pedestal-like platform that rises no higher than 8 feet. Any signs that stood before the ordinance passed in 2007 have seven more years to comply, and any new signs must meet the new standard.
Geltzer said for his business and many others in Largo, an extra roadside sign announcing discount oil changes or tire sales would be a boon.
"If we could draw two or three more cars to our shop, that would make a big difference," Geltzer said. "An eye-catching sign would definitely be a huge help to our business and businesses here locally."
According to Joseph Stefko, owner of Hair Jungle salon at 154 Sixth St. NW, more than 75 merchants in the city have signed a petition to lobby for changes to the codes, which some have called overly restrictive in aiming to reduce visual clutter along Largo's streets.
Stefko said he'd like to work out a compromise with the city. Some of the ideas he'd like to see implemented include business owners agreeing on a uniform flag-type temporary sign to announce a sale, and temporary allowances for special events.
"You can't have any balloons right now. But if you're having a grand opening or a special, why can't you have balloons, only for a day? It's hard right now," Stefko said.
Mayor Patricia Gerard said the city isn't tone deaf to the needs and desires of merchants, and said some help may be coming in the near future.
"We're willing to look at some things," she said. "We understand where they're coming from. In the meantime, we'll try to get them some relief."
A roundtable meeting is planned for next month to discuss the issue.
But since businesses everywhere are seeing fewer customers, Gerard cautioned that while more advertising could help small businesses, restrictions on signs aren't the root of the problem.
"I think the businesses blame the sign ordinance, but I don't think that's the whole problem," Gerard said. "I have some interest in seeing if there are ways to help without disassembling our entire sign ordinance."
Andrew Bertucci, executive director of the U.S. Sign Council, an organization that researches and lobbies for the sign industry, said restrictions on primary business signs often lead business owners to resort to desperate measures when times get tough.
"The unintended consequence is before they go out of business, the owner will do what he has to do," Bertucci said. "They will resort to temporary banners."
As to the effectiveness of things like dancing roadside characters, glaring sale signs and fluttering streamers to attract attention, he said the results would likely be only temporary.
"Very frequently, the owner will put them up and get a couple weeks use before he is cited and has to take them down," Bertucci said. "They are probably effective for a limited amount of time. On the other hand, I can't say they make any sort of lasting contribution."