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Temporary sign program: a boost for some businesses, not all

LARGO - A few weeks ago, Theresa Blouin and her sister decided to stop by the Baltic Amber restaurant on Clearwater-Largo Road.

"We came down and we couldn't find it," said Blouin, a snowbird from New Hampshire.

It's a common complaint. The owner of the Polish restaurant, Richard Sikorski, and other merchants in Largo say strict sign regulations make it difficult for people to find them. And the lagging economy makes things worse.

To help them out, the city of Largo started a temporary economic stimulus sign program last July. The program lets businesses apply for permits to put up a banner or 12-foot-tall "feather" sign for up to 45 days each three-month period. The annual fee is $50.

About 60 permits have been issued.

A number of local merchants lobbied for the economic stimulus program. But not everyone thinks it's working. They'd like the city to do more.

"It's really not helping a lot," Sikorski said.

He and his wife, Eva, opened the restaurant at 552 Clearwater-Largo Road last summer. Under the stimulus program, Sikorski erected a bright red feather sign out front that reads "Breakfast Special." But he said it draws only about one or two tables of customers each morning.

Sikorski said he'd rather see looser sign regulations. He's worried about the future of his permanent sign. Code enforcement staff told him the sign cannot withstand heavy winds and therefore doesn't meet city requirements, he said.

"If I really have to remove this sign, I'll be signless, so the little feather sign will not help me a bit," he said.

But some city leaders say firm regulations are necessary to keep Largo from looking too cluttered.

"People say there's never enough signage," said Carol Stricklin, Largo's community development director. "The city's interest is in managing the overall appearance of the community."

Unlike Sikorski, Juliette Mormino, who owns Tropical Smoothie on West Bay Drive, is pleased with the temporary sign program.

"There's a lot of traffic that goes by and the more visibility you have from the road, the more it can help you," said Mormino, who opened her restaurant with her husband, Joe, in August 2009.

About a month later, Joe Mormino came to City Hall to ask Largo to work with businesses to help them promote themselves.

Several months later, struggling business owners began lobbying city leaders to ease sign regulations.

A petition campaign backed by dozens of businesses helped persuade commissioners to pass the temporary sign ordinance, which expires in July.

To continue the program, the City Commission would have to request another ordinance, Stricklin said.

Last month, Old Northwest community organizer Joseph Stefko visited City Hall to ask leaders to keep the temporary sign program going.

Mormino feels the same way.

"It would be great to continue on that same road next year," she said.