Jeff Ward: Sandwich Board Flap Gets Me Unhinged
Our downtown is disappearing and merchants are worried about sandwich boards?
Joe, I swear I’m doing my best! Frequently finding myself at the corner of Third and State streets, to ward off the chill those empty buildings send down my spine, my Christmas mantra has been “Joe Stanton is a smart guy, and he knows what he’s talking about.”
You see, business consultant, downtown landlord and 2011 Wood Award winner Joe Stanton and I agree on just about everything about our unique downtown, but one. He sees it surviving the challenges of a deep recession, Randall Road and the Internet, and I don’t.
Through the process of writing that previous column on the impending closure of the Merra-Lee shops, Joe’s pithy and optimistic insights had even this curmudgeon believing better downtown days were ahead.
But then I had to go ahead and read that Kane County Chronicle article covering the latest Geneva sandwich board flap, which sent me spiraling right back down into my previous vision of an eventual downtown doom.
The proliferation and poor placement of these A-frame advertising devices came to a head last summer when the issue of city liability, once again, reared its ugly head. But rather than just enforce the existing ordinance, which only allows restaurants to employ sandwich boards, the mayor and City Council put out the call for the business community to come up with a compromise that would work for everyone.
And they did!
So now any business owners who plunk down a $60 annual fee and purchase the appropriate liability insurance can place a sandwich board outside their establishment, even if the sign sits on a public right of way. And the city made it reasonably easy! Fill out the application by Dec. 1, and you don’t even have to fork over any cash until May 1.
But since nothing in this life is ever easy, here's how it played out. The city warned 38 businesses, by e-mail, letter and then in person, that they’d have to remove the signs if they had no permit by the morning of the Christmas Walk. When all was said and done, code enforcers still had to confiscate 15 illegal sandwich boards.
One store owner, who felt the cold, hard hand of the law, told KCC reporter Brenda Schory, “I never applied for a permit because I did not understand all that baloney.” Apparently, the business owner also refused to believe the city inspector who personally warned her.
Now, I’m not using this merchant’s name because I’m truly hoping, upon further reflection, that she will realize just how foolish her course of action looks to anyone with two connected brain cells.
The sad thing is, this kind of short-sighted and self-centered thinking is far from atypical.
The first problem with sandwich boards is, unless your business is a restaurant, they don’t work. And if our Third Street merchants truly consider that to be “marketing,” then abandon all hope ye who enter downtown Geneva.
When this whole flap first started, the first thing I thought was, “There aren’t that many sandwich boards in downtown Geneva!” But after a quick reconnaissance mission, I realized they’re everywhere! And, if you’re actually paying attention, they do make our downtown look like a flea market.
And the irony is, it’s because of their proliferation that I’d blocked them out. This is why Net advertisers are resorting to bizarrely animated pictures because when something hits our conscious critical mass, we just ignore it. Kind of like Donald Trump.
If sandwich boards really worked for retail businesses, then you’d see ‘em all over Randall Road.
But what really gets my goat is those same downtown folks who scream bloody murder when you take away their beloved boards don’t have a clue when a real marketing opportunity comes their way. Many of those same folks demanded that the bike race, which brought thousands of new eyes to downtown Geneva, move off Third Street because it “interfered with" their businesses.
Please don’t make me have to start telling those Road to Perdition stories again.
Though I’ll be the first to take on city officials when they deserve it, I’m also going to be the first to defend them when necessary. Instead of bringing the code enforcement hammer down, Geneva made every effort to work with merchants, changed the ordinance, and then they were hyper communicative about exactly what that change meant.
Despite those efforts, some downtown merchants, who don’t nearly pay their own way as it is (see Geneva-taxpayer-sponsored sidewalk snow plowing), ignored the mild $60 fee, had their signs confiscated, and then complained about the city?
Sorry folks, but if you can’t handle something as simple and straightforward as this process, how are you going to run a business? So, as we watch our downtown vanish before our eyes, this is what we’re concerned with? Sandwich boards?
Sometimes predicting the future really isn’t all that difficult.
Joe! I want to believe you, I really do. I want to see our downtown survive, because my life wouldn’t be the same without Kiss the Sky, Geneva Running Outfitters, Great Harvest Bread, Graham's, Stockholm’s and the rest, but you can’t save people from themselves.
So while I believe I’m utterly justified in fearing the worst, I promise all of you I’m just going to close my eyes and keep on repeating, “Joe Stanton knows what he’s talking about … ”