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|July 10-16, 2008
Signs of the timesSome Pearl Street merchants say the city’s signage ordinance is bad for business — and Boulder
by Pamela White
Robert Eastman was hard at work in his candy store on Pearl Street when two “huge guys” walked up to the A-frame sign he’d set outside advertising his gelato — and carried it away.
“I ran after them around the corner,” says Eastman, co-owner of Powell’s Sweet Shop. “I was screaming at them, and they weren’t stopping. They were sticking it in their trunk.”
Eastman says he believed he was being robbed and came close to calling the police on his cell phone. But when he approached the car, he learned that they were police officers and that they worked for the city’s environmental enforcement department.
They told him that they’d already warned him about having a sign on the bricks in front of his store — a warning Eastman says he never received — and that they’d come to confiscate the sign. Eastman took the sign out of their trunk, letting them know exactly what he thought about their actions.
“It was not a good meeting,” Eastman recalls. “I basically gave them an earful.”
Eastman is one of about 30 Pearl Street merchants who’ve run into problems with signage in front of their stores this year, and he’s one of a handful who are calling for the city to revisit its ordinance and find better ways to support businesses on the city’s pedestrian mall.
The current ordinance prohibits businesses from putting signs on city property — including the bricks of Pearl Street Mall — and allows enforcement officials to fine those who do. The first ticket is $100 and can be mailed in. Subsequent violations cost $250, and the offending business owner is required to go to court.
While signage might not be a problem for shops that have corner locations or large windows in which to display wares, it has an impact on smaller businesses, especially those that are upstairs or downstairs where pedestrians can’t easily see them.
And some say those small, independent businesses are exactly the ones that Pearl Street needs in order to remain a vital economic force in the city.
Backed into a corner
Eastman and his wife and business partner Kate Eastman moved to Boulder from Santa Rosa, Calif., so that Eastman could take a job with Communication Arts, also located on Pearl Street. Almost two years ago, they decided to open a franchise of Powell’s Sweet Shop, a business launched in Santa Rosa.
A sign-maker himself, Eastman felt the sign he was using to advertise his gelato was key to letting potential customers know that he had something for them besides candy and chocolate. With five other ice cream and gelato businesses on the mall, that felt important to him.
“People would come in and ask for gelato,” he says, recalling business when the sign was up. “Now they come in and say, ‘I didn’t know you have gelato.’”
Still, the Eastmans know they have it better than others. They have a storefront on the mall, and people love candy.
“Our business has been called recession proof,” Eastman says. “We’re only going up.”
But not far from his door, there are less visible, home-grown businesses struggling to survive.
Left Hand Books is one of those businesses. The small all-volunteer co-op bookstore has been a fixture in Boulder since it opened in 1979, selling literature and nonfiction with a progressive bent, as well as an array of T-shirts and bumper stickers.
The store, a not-for-profit, runs on a small budget, the bulk of which goes to pay the lease. The difference between success and having to close its doors permanently is small.
Located downstairs near The Body Shop, Left Hand Books has regular customers who know exactly where the store is. But passersby and tourists would have to look for it to find it.
In hopes of drawing more people down the stairs and into the store, volunteers made a sign and stuck it in the dead space inside a stair railing, where it was almost eye level and where it wouldn’t impede foot traffic.
The sign hadn’t been up long when Left Hand Books received a written warning from Terry Steinborn, a city enforcement officer.
The sign came down — and almost instantly the store’s foot traffic decreased by about 60 percent, according to Tom Moore, one of the store’s volunteers.
“Left Hand Books used to donate money to the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center as well as KGNU Radio, but now we don’t do that,” Moore says. “Now we work to support this building.”
Across the hall from Left Hand Books is Enchanted Ink Body Art Studio, owned by local residents Tara Gray-Wolfstar and Gwynn Wolfstar. When the two signed their first lease 10 years ago, they were told that the building owner was having a new marquis designed for his tenants. They even saw an artist’s rendering of the proposed sign and loved it. Gray-Wolfstar says the sign tipped the scale for them and convinced them to locate their business there.
And at first, business boomed, in part because they were allowed for the first three months to hang a banner. When the banner came down, they put together a sandwich-board sign and set it out where people strolling by could see it.
“We got away with that for a long time,” says Gray-Wolfstar.
Then came 9/11 and the aftermath that saw the city of Boulder in financial crisis, in part due to a sharp dip in sales tax revenues. Then the city did construction work on Broadway, which cut into parking and made driving downtown irritating. Then the cost of parking went up.
And then Enchanted Ink received a warning about the sandwich board — and their sign came down. Foot traffic dropped dramatically.
“It’s just been one thing after another,” Gray-Wolfstar says. “With all of these things happening and putting the squeeze on Pearl Street businesses, it seems like the city is adding one more obstacle.”
Anthony Funderburgh is the owner of Chantique, which recycles antique chandeliers from Europe, restoring them and turning them into fixtures that can be used in the average home. Funderburgh has his shop next to Enchanted Ink.
He, too, relied on signage on the mall to draw people to his door, which is not visible from the mall itself. When his sign came down, so did the number of people who stopped in to admire his work, mostly because people had no idea he’s there.
“There’s a general rule of retail: For every step you go downstairs, you lose a percentage of your business,” Funderburgh says. “If you look around town, you’ll notice that every business downstairs is locally owned [because they can’t afford high rents].”
As a result, the signage ordinance often has the biggest negative impact on locally owned businesses, which are the exact same businesses that can’t afford to pay for other kinds of promotion, such as inclusion in tourist shopping guides. The combination of factors too often means locally owned businesses quickly close their doors.
“It feels like the city doesn’t want us to succeed,” says Gray-Wolfstar. “Local businesses keep failing, and they’re replaced by chains. They’re just being crushed.”
Gray-Wolfstar says the continuing shift toward chain stores on Pearl Street that she has witnessed might eventually spell the death of the mall, because shoppers who want to shop at chains or high-end boutiques can get free parking and a controlled climate at Flatiron Crossing, where snow, rain, ice and heat won’t effect their shopping experience.
For consumers to choose Pearl Street, there has to be an eclectic assortment of shops offering a range of fun and interesting products, she says.
“What brings people here — it is us,” she says, referring to locally owned businesses. “The more they fill this place up with corporate chains, the less it will thrive.”
What these business owners would like to see is a concerted effort on the part of the city to understand their needs and to revise the signage ordinance so that smaller, local businesses don’t have to take such a big hit.
Eastman, with his background in sign-making, says the city might even benefit from changing the ordinance by making the signs itself and leasing them. For example, the city could make uniform, wrought-iron signs that are aesthetically pleasing and fit with mall décor for businesses to lease.
“I feel like there could be a way that we could create some kind of program for some of these smaller shops that don’t have storefronts to be seen a little better,” he says. “It’s only going to generate sales tax.”
Then he adds, “Basically, everyone on Pearl Street should be doing really well. The place should be marketed so that no one’s going out of business.”
Take a casual walk down Pearl Street Mall, and you’ll find a dozen or more business in violation of the sign ordinance on any given day. Standing in front of Powell’s Sweet Shop, Boulder Weekly was able to see several businesses on the same block that were displaying sandwich-board signs.
It’s the law
That’s the other thing that galls some merchants about the sign ordinance: it doesn’t seem to be enforced with any consistency.
Moore shares photographs taken on the day Left Hand Books received its warning that show shop after shop violating the ordinance. Many still have signs out front. It’s not that he wants those other stores to have their signs confiscated; he just wants the ordinance to be enforced fairly.
“Some businesses are getting away with it, because they have patios with railings and they use those,” he says. “Some of us don’t feel like that’s fair.”
Steve DePuy, an environment and zoning officer with the city of Boulder, says that what seems like inconsistent enforcement is really the result of having a big job to do and very few people to do it. With only 4.5 full-time equivalent positions, Environment Enforcement is also charged with handling building code enforcement, rental licensing and noise complaints. The time available to hand out warnings, confiscate signs and issue summonses is limited.
Recently, enforcement officers visited the 1100, 1200, 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pearl Street, trying to do a sort of sweep.
“We try to do as many in a row as possible so that they won’t look at the guy across Pearl Street and say, ‘What about them?’” DePuy says. “But by no means could I tell you that we started at one end and made it to the other end in a short period of time.”
Often, enforcement is driven by complaints, either from the public or from other business owners on the mall, he says.
“People call the downtown mall management to complain about it, and when they feel it’s a big enough problem they call us to make sure we come down and do some enforcement,” he says. “We get that a lot. ‘You’re down here talking to me about my sign. What about these guys.’ Typically my answer would be, ‘We’re going there next.’”
This year so far, enforcement officers have issued 30 warnings and one summons and have confiscated three signs, one of which was returned. DePuy says his department never confiscates signs or hands out tickets without first giving a warning.
“Two years ago when I first started this program, we went to 90 percent of the businesses on the mall and personally handed people a letter indicating what the ordinances were and telling them that enforcement should happen, so there shouldn’t have been any surprise,” DePuy says. “But again this year, before we did any enforcement, we did warnings again.”
Referring to Eastman’s experience of having his sign taken away, he says he can’t imagine officers doing what Eastman described.
“I have no idea what the circumstances were with the guy chasing them down the street,” DePuy says. “Most of us in this office are police officers, and we’ve been doing this for a long time — not taking signs, necessarily, but interacting with people for a long time in both good and bad circumstances. And so I just can’t think of what the circumstances would be where we would ignore somebody running down the street yelling at us. On the other hand, things happen.”
DePuy says that, although he often hears from business owners that sandwich-board signs are “hugely effective” at bringing in business, his job is to enforce city ordinances.
He has no objection to merchants’ suggestion that the ordinance needs to change.
“There’s a big process for it, but somebody needs to start it,” he says.
Usually that “somebody” would be an association like Downtown Boulder Inc. (DBI), but if they’re not feeling any pressure from their constituents, they won’t take up the issue, he says.
Jane Jenkins, executive director of the Downtown Boulder Business Improvement District (BID), says the signage issue is one that comes up periodically, usually after there’s been a crackdown by the city.
Though there has been talk about approaching the city about the ordinance, the issue has never been a priority.
“We have a limited staff, time and resources to do things, and generally it doesn’t fly to the top as a huge priority, but I think that’s because it hasn’t had a champion,” Jenkins says. “There just hasn’t been a champion to take it any further. I do think that it’s something that DBI would look at if they had a champion to really bring it forward.”
Without the support of BID or DBI, Jenkins is uncertain how much success such an effort to revise the code would have.
“I think with the support of one or both of those organizations it would make a stronger case with the city to open the discussions,” she says. “I have no idea how the city would receive it.”
Volunteers at Left Hand Books, already activists on other issues, have talked with other shopkeepers about collecting signatures to push the issue with the city. They believe they’ll find support from the majority of merchants on Pearl Street and are willing to put in the footwork necessary to get the job done.
But for Left Hand Books, as with the other business owners interviewed for this article, the time to act is now, when Pearl Street is swarming with summer visitors. A long review process that might ultimately require the involvement of the Boulder City Council won’t bring business through their doors this summer when they so desperately need it. It’s not just that business is hard to come by when you’re downstairs, but also that costs are up.
Although sales tax revenues, both in raw dollars and adjusted dollars, are up this year for Pearl Street — 1.5 percent and almost 6 percent, respectively — most businesses are feeling the pinch of higher fuel and shipping costs. In raw dollars, the city of Boulder collected $673,448 from Pearl Street businesses between January and April of 2008, up from $658,156 for the same period in 2007.
Eastman is one of those feeling the heat.
“For a 12-bar box of chocolate, they’re tacking on a $12 surcharge to ship it,” he says. “But we’re not passing that on, because I don’t feel anyone can take a dollar increase in their favorite chocolate bar. Our sales are higher, but I can’t say that our profit margin will be the same this year.”
Moore hopes that the city can find a way to help businesses like Left Hand Books and its neighbors to promote themselves this summer.
“It’s crucial right now,” he says. “Some of us do need special consideration.”
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