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Signs produce fresh problems

A family's advertisement for a roadside stand violates city code. They fear their dreams for success may go down with the signs.

By DAVE SCHEIBER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2000


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[Times photos: Pam Royal]
Gigi and Abdelaziz Ibrahim run the roadside produce stand at 3045 Ninth St. N. City code officials say their signs raise safety and aesthetic concerns.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The two long planks of plywood are painted yellow, with big blue letters proclaiming the weekly specials to passing motorists: Bananas 25 lb., Georgia Peaches 99 lb., Seedless Watermelon $2.99 each.

Every day, Gigi and Abdelaziz Ibrahim prop the planks in front of their open-air produce market at 3045 Ninth St. N. They lean their simple homemade messages on either side of a pole that supports a permanent sign reading "Fresh Produce."

The 8- by 4-foot boards do the rest -- beckoning drivers to stop in for a look at the bounty of fruits and vegetables Abdelaziz has purchased each morning in Tampa, Ruskin and Plant City.

In the highly competitive produce-stand world, the signs are more than quaint embellishments to their 14-month-old venture. They are essential advertising. For the Ibrahims, their roadside pricing instantly tripled profits on weekdays, and more than quadrupled their take on weekends.

The planks are helping the young Egyptian couple build their American dream: creating a successful family business they proudly named "My Summer Garden," supporting Gigi's three young children from a prior marriage, paving the way for Abdelaziz to one day start an import-export company like the one he left behind in Alexandria, Egypt, to be with Gigi.

Now, however, their signs of success have become signs of trouble, plunging them into a bureaucratic hassle with the city of St. Petersburg.

The Ibrahims, it turns out, are in violation of a 1992 city code that forbids "portable" signs or "sandwich board" type advertising.

The homespun produce-stand signs, providing a visual link between urban and rural life, are banned in the city for two reasons -- potential safety concerns posed by unsecured material and aesthetic considerations.

"Who are the signs hurting?" says Gigi, 26, on a recent rainy morning, while her husband, 27, rings up a steady flow of customers at the register. "They don't hurt anybody -- but we're the ones who will be hurt if we have to take them down, because it will ruin our business. I mean, here we are, struggling to make a living, and instead of supporting our business, they're trying to break us down."

Sally Eichler, director of the city's codes compliance assistance department, says that she is sympathetic to the Ibrahims and that options may exist for them, such as getting a permit to attach a sign to the building or an add-on to the existing sign. "Obviously, I feel really badly." Eichler says. "I understand they feel like they're in a place where there is no solution but this one solution -- this is the thing that makes their business work."

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Since the couple erected the pricing signs, profits tripled on the weekdays and more than quadrupled on the weekends. “They don’t hurt anybody — but we’re the ones who will be hurt if we have to take them down, because it will ruin our business,” said Gigi Ibrahim, who helps run the stand with her husband, Abdelaziz.
Eichler coordinates a busy staff of 25 investigators in 29 zones who handle some 6,500 active code cases -- many for serious housing and structural violations. Often, she says, cases are not investigated until they are brought to the city's attention by complaints -- such as with the Ibrahims. The city does grant permits for various types of signs, and devotes staff to try to resolve sign disputes.

The Ibrahims do not see how their situation can be solved. They have looked into adding compliant signs to their building to display specials but say the cost is too great, and the prices would not be readily visible to drivers on Ninth Street. Abdelaziz tried climbing a ladder to attach changeable letters to the permanent sign, but he says they would not stay up, and Gigi thought it was too dangerous to have her husband working high above the ground. Their woes started one day in March when a woman got out of her car and starting taking pictures of their place. Gigi asked why the woman was taking pictures, but she was evasive. Soon after, they received their first visit from a city inspector, responding to an anonymous complaint.

"The reason they came after us, they said, is that somebody called and said that we have these signs that are a real danger -- they could cause a car accident," Gigi says.

The inspector also told them that their wood-and-tarp canopy, shielding produce from the elements, needed a permit and was unsafe. It was built by a previous tenant, but they would have to replace it.

The Ibrahims spoke with builders to price a sturdier covering but were told it would cost them at least $4,000. They looked into getting an after-the-fact permit for the canopy, but they say one architect wanted $1,000 just to write a letter requesting one.

The city granted an extension as the Ibrahims searched for a solution. They found it last week while shopping at Albertson's -- large designer umbrellas, anchored in iron bases. Abdelaziz bought eight of them, at $100 a pop. He took down the offending awning, set up two rows of the white umbrellas and earned the approval of the inspector.

Still, the sign issue persisted. There was the permanent sign, in disrepair for years before the Ibrahims moved in, on the pole by the street. The owner of the property, Carolyn Spencer of Wilsey Auto Service next door, stepped in and covered the bill to rebuild it. The Ibrahims then had an artist friend design and paint the "Fresh Produce" message now attached to it.

The two planks, meanwhile, have remained standing. "I think some people would find that charming, to have such a grass roots kind of thing there," says Tina Bucuvalas, who coordinates folk-life programs for the state. "I don't know the particular case or the codes there, but roadside stands are part of the agricultural tradition of Florida, as elsewhere in the nation."

After years of failed businesses on the site, the Ibrahims are a welcome change.

"They have done a great job," says Wilsey's owner Carolyn Spencer. She had rented to an array of produce vendors on the land over the years. They never lasted, and the lot was empty for a year before the Ibrahims arrived. "If I had been them, I might have given up by now," she says. "They've really tried and worked hard. They're very sweet people."

Gigi, born in Cleveland to Egyptian parents, ran two successful produce stands and a restaurant in Clearwater in the mid 1990s with her first husband. But in 1998, her marriage and the businesses broke up. After the divorce, she visited her mother in Egypt, where she met and married Abdelaziz. He gave up a budding import-export business to move to Florida with Gigi and her three children -- ages 7, 6 and 2 -- and start a new life.

Today, it is filled with uncertainty. The Ibrahims say they have been given two more weeks to remove their signs or face costly fines. They insist the signs pose no danger -- they are about 15 feet from the street. On weekends, they move them closer to the curb, but tie them to a post. During windy weather, they take them down altogether.

They plan to do a little landscaping out front, maybe stock a cooler in back with drinks and Middle Eastern delicacies Gigi makes. But first, they are waiting to see which way the signs point.

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