Merchants given cold shoulder on road signs

A Times Editorial
Published December 17, 2006

In the late 1980s, merchants along State Road 580 in Dunedin were worried. The two-lane road was being widened to a whopping six lanes in a multiyear project. Merchants feared they would not survive the construction.

Why would their customers venture into an area filled with mountains of dirt, littered with pipes and crisscrossed by bulldozers and dump trucks? And if they did, how would they find the businesses, which were obscured by dirt mounds, or figure out where to safely turn in?

The city government came to the merchants' rescue.

First, the city relaxed its sign ordinance for property owners in the construction zone so they could put up signs directing customers to their entrances.

But city commissioners still fretted that the healthy retail corridor would be plowed under by the project, and they still were hearing from merchants worried they would go bankrupt.

So commissioners relaxed the sign code even more. They voted to allow every property owner in the construction zone to put up any kind of temporary sign that would help customers. Banners, sandwich board signs, portable signs - all were allowed as long as the property owner went to the city first to get a free permit. The city approved the permits as long as the signs were safe and didn't present any city liability problems.

The result wasn't pretty, but as Commissioner Manuel Koutsourais said at the time, "If you're concerned about aesthetics, there's nothing uglier than watching SR 580 being built." Complaints slowed, customers found their way around, and most businesses survived the extended construction period.

Dunedin officials got it right.

Clearwater officials have it wrong.

Parts of downtown's Cleveland Street look like a moonscape these days. Utility lines are being replaced and a big streetscaping project is under way. Whole blocks are completely closed to automobile traffic and what used to be the street is now mounded with earth.

Other sections of Cleveland remain open to limited traffic, but it is difficult to recognize the open sections because of all the "road closed" signs.

Cleveland Street merchants knew the project was coming, but the utter destruction it has wrought has surprised some and affected all. Merchants asked the city to relax the sign code so they could put up the kinds of signs they felt were needed to inform automobile traffic passing through nearby intersections that the stores on Cleveland were still open.

The city said no to relaxing the code, even temporarily, but offered to erect some banners, which still had not arrived this week.

When desperate merchants put up their own signs, the city ordered them down under threat of code citations.

Last week Mike and Liz Foster shut down their Latin Twist Grill, which had a busy opening in May before the road construction began in June. The Fosters couldn't hold on any longer, and they were angered by the city's failure to help. On Tuesday, with the cafe shuttered, signs posted in the window bitterly blamed the city for not caring.

City officials said they cannot relax the sign rules for Cleveland Street merchants without relaxing them for businesses in other road construction zones around the city.

Okay, what's wrong with that?

These small businesses provide people's livelihoods. They put food on their tables, clothe their children and pay the doctor bills. A family that is out of business often must rely on government social services to survive, and a business that is closed cannot pay taxes into the city treasury.

Aesthetics are important, and for years Clearwater government has done an admirable job of cleaning up sign clutter, removing code violations and landscaping city rights of way.

But some things matter more. Relaxing the sign code temporarily within construction zone boundaries would be a way for city government to show it has a heart.