In the wake of last fall’s “signgate” situation, city officials and members of the newly formed Merchants of Safety Harbor (MOSH) organization decided to work together in order to promote the businesses in the downtown district.
After officials held a town hall meeting and then proposed a number of minor changes to the city’s existing sign code, MOSH board member Clyde Hutching, co-owner of Edgewater & Main, embarked on a mission to find new ways to promote local businesses that fell within the confines of the sign code restrictions.
The result was a capital project that would use CRA funds to replace, and in some cases install new, wayfaring signs in and around the downtown area, a multi-phased plan that would see three new, lighted signs, featuring a comprehensive business directory as well as additional advertising space, installed in town at an estimated cost of $12,200 in the first year.
However, the plan was put on hold due to questions about the nature of the advertising that could be allowed on the signs when it was presented to the City Commission on Monday.
“I still have a difficult time using public right of way city property to advertise for local businesses,” Mayor Andy Steingold said when the agenda item came up during Monday’s commission meeting. “It doesn’t strike a good chord with me.”
Commissioner Cliff Merz said he didn’t believe the organization should utilize funds designated for businesses in the downtown district to be used for a feature that could promote businesses outside of the area, or even outside the city.
“When I first read it, I liked the idea,” he said, “but I still have concerns about using CRA and CRD money for businesses outside of the area.”
City Attorney Alan Zimmet quickly stepped in and informed the commission that they would be on shaky legal ground if they opted to restrict the types of ads that could be placed on the signs.
“It’s a much more complicated legal issue than it appears on its face,” Zimmet said, citing an instance where the PSTA was sued after a similar partnership agreement. “The more we impose regulations, the higher the risk goes.”
While Commissioner Janet Hooper and Vice-Mayor Andy Zodrow both said they support the new signs, Mayor Steingold asked city staff to do more research before the commission votes on the proposal.
“I certainly need more information from Mr. Zimmet,” he said.
After the meeting, Hutchings spoke to Safety Harbor Connect about the issue.
“No decision was made because we want to put advertising on the signs, because the advertising would pay for the electricity, maintenance and other expenses,” Hutchings said by phone on Wednesday.
“We didn’t want the city or residents to have to pay for it, so we designed them to be pretty self sufficient when it comes to covering the associated costs.”
Hutchings estimates the electric bill for the LED-lighted signs would be roughly $20.00 per month, but he said the regular updates to the comprehensive business directories on the back of the signs would be very costly to maintain.
“The quarterly updates for the business directories would be about $5,000 a year, and the advertising would pay for that,” he said.
“There are a lot of businesses in the district, and they change out frequently, so it would be a lot of legwork, and that’s why we have the advertising. We wanted it to be an affordable way for small business owners to advertise their business in town.
As for allowing businesses outside of the city to advertise on the signs, Hutchings said that was not what the MOSH board members had in mind.
“MOSH’s fist priority is to promote downtown Safety Harbor, and it would not behoove us to promote a business in Clearwater,” he said. “So we’ll just have to wait and see what the commission decides.”
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