After a somewhat stressful/emotional day, I woke up early this morning with a plan. and a request. Action always helps. I was reminded yesterday that we do not live in a dictatorship and there are options available to me. I'd love to enlist your help. There are three simple actions: 1) Writing the City Alders. 2) Writing the Mayor. 3) Attending a public meeting on July 31. If you pick just one action, writing the Alders (a relatively simple task, I think), would be doing a lot to help.
And no, this doesn't just apply to Madison residents. If you like your State Street shopping experience (or, if there are other things you like less than sandwich boards about your experience), if you are a friend of Anthology and other small businesses, we appreciate your support.
Here's the story, as short as I can get it. Mayor Soglin (of Madison) has begun a "sign code enforcement initiative." In essence, he finds sandwich boards and other signage unsightly, he particularly thinks State Street looks "honky tonk" (his words, not mine), he believes the public has weighed in on what they want State Street to look like, and he is doing his job in enforcing state statutes.
There IS a state law on the books that regulates signage in the public right-of-way. Because of the unique nature of State Street, everything from the outer edge of our building to the outer edge of the Overture Center is in the right-of-way. However, should enforcement proceed, this will affect all businesses around Madison who put sandwich boards in the public right-of-way. We aren't the only store in violation. I am pretty sure that other cities around the state have found ways to regulate within the spirit of the law, and yet still allow small businesses this simple method of communicating with their customers.
We certainly want to uphold the spirit of the law - which is to reduce traffic hazards and comply with disability accessibility laws, even that vague idea of preserving the aesthetics of an unadvertised landscape. We make every effort to keep our sandwich board on the far side of the sidewalk by the tree - presumably a space that no one will be passing through. We keep the walkway along the edge of our building clear. We bought what we think is a simple sandwich board which is not unsightly or out of character with our shop. We would be happy to work with the city, as has been done elsewhere in the state, to develop some guidelines and a permitting process so that egregious violations can be dealt with. The building edges must be kept clear for sight-impaired, and the walkway needs to be wide enough for double-wide strollers and wheelchairs. Clearly we want State Street to be an enjoyable experience for everyone, as much as it is impossible to actually please everyone.
However, the letter of the law means that we cannot have a sandwich board outside our shop. At all. We haven't had the time to sit and observe people for an entire day, but every single day, we watch people walk by without looking at our store at all and have people tell us that they've passed us by for years without stopping. I would easily estimate that 20% of our customers are propelled inside by our sandwich board. I don't know about other businesses, but a 20% drop is not something we can afford. Every single day, someone walks by, spots our sandwich board first and then takes the next step of actually stopping in our store. From our perspective, our sandwich board is a valuable part of our business marketing. There was a recent Cap Times article by Paul Fanlund which dismissed this issue as a "triviality" but we feel strongly that removing our sandwich board is no trivial matter and will have a negative effect on our business. There are many things on State Street that are also impediments: outdoor cafes, trees, planters, benches, bicycle racks, bus shelters, trash cans, large groups of slow moving people. All of these are critical to the function of the street. Naturally, we are biased, but we believe that the function of the street is also about unique, independent stores and restaurants, for which the sandwich board is an essential tool.
Advertising campaigns cost hundreds or thousands of dollars; if you are the Gap, they cost hundreds OF thousands of dollars. As a small business, we do not have those kinds of resources. Our sandwich board is a simple way to communicate with people; and for those who look more to words than to product displays, it is an effective complement to our store windows. For those who have never heard of Anthology, "we have brat and cheese curd t-shirts" are often just the words needed to give them the push to come and check us out. The immediacy, proximity and changeability of our sandwich board are all valuable qualities that cannot be replicated.
There is a word I cannot think of, for when two bodies of water come together, not really a tidal zone, but perhaps that's as close as I'll get this morning. For better, and worse, that's what State Street is like. It is a place for a diverse group of people from many places and economic backgrounds to meet and mix. Its strength and uniqueness comes from these many people, and it comes from the variety of interesting businesses they create. It is not a sterile or sanitized place; perhaps it makes some uncomfortable that they don't quite know what to expect, but I believe that more of us would be bored and uninterested if we knew exactly what to expect (Gap, cell phone stores and assorted other large national brands). Obviously, we do not want aggressive or inebriated behavior, and street musicians and uninteresting window displays drive me as crazy as sandwich boards apparently aggravate the Mayor. Nonetheless, we feel that some of the "honky tonk" character of State Street is innate and is just part of what it should be.
[Update: sheesh, it is apparent that I have strayed very far from my scientific roots. However, I have enough people in my life whose vocabulary didn't fail them. Thanks, Michael and Esteban. Yes, ESTUARY is the word that I was looking for. Wikipedia says "Estuaries form a transition zone between river environments and ocean environments and are subject to both marine influences, such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water; and riverine influences, such as flows of fresh water and sediment. The inflow of both seawater and freshwater provide high levels of nutrients in both the water column and sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world." So I was at least thinking about the right metaphor even if I couldn't think of the word for it. ]
We really hope that the City of Madison can find a way to work with its small businesses. Everyone always talks about the value of small business to communities - as job creators, as economic engines, yet we often find that the talk, on the state and federal government paperwork level, is not backed up by action. If, indeed, we are valuable to the City of Madison, we would appreciate the opportunity to work with officials to GROW our business. Removing our sandwich board will not help.
Well, as usual, that got long. I thought of creating one of those letter templates so you could just cut, paste, send. From our perspective, the main gist is that the sign enforcement initiative will hurt our business and seems to run counter to what we think the public wants of State Street: a street of lively and interesting independent businesses.
We would greatly appreciate your support in this matter. As I mentioned initially, there are three simple actions, and the simplest one (#1) is probably the one that is the most effective:
1. Write the City Alders at firstname.lastname@example.org. Whether you are a city of Madison resident, or someone who is a friend of small business or who shops on State Street, we'd love for them to hear from many people about the value of small businesses (and the ways that small businesses communicate with their customers). Not incidentally, we also think that there are more pressing matters that the City should be attending to.
2. Write the Mayor at email@example.com. I was at a meeting with him yesterday and felt that his mind was made up. But maybe he just needs a few more letters. He *says* that the public has already spoken on this matter; we believe the public would say otherwise. We feel strongly that one's actions should stem from one's goals. What is the goal for State Street? How does removing our sandwich board accomplish that goal? For that matter, what is the goal for the City of Madison? How does hurting a small business aide in that goal?
3. Attend the public meeting on July 31st. Anthology will be there, but more people is always better. The meeting will be held at the Overture Center from 5 - 7 pm.
We REALLY appreciate your support of our shop and our efforts to keep growing our business!
In case you need more information, here are a few links:
Business Signage Informational Meeting
Tuesday, July 31, 5:00 – 7:00 pm
Overture Center, 201 State St., Wisconsin Studio (3rd floor)
We understand that the City will focus on: a) Sandwich boards: The signage code prohibits all business sandwich boards that are in the “public right of way,” i.e., anyplace other than on private property, although this has not been strictly enforced for over a decade. b) Real estate sign violations. c) Illuminated sign violations, including illuminated signs with light backgrounds at night. d) Businesses that have more signage in their window space than the code permits. (Windows are allowed around 20% of the space occupied by advertising, business identiy, flyers for community events, etc.)
“Madison Signage 101: A Primer – Business Signage Approval and Illegal Signage Enforcement 2012” – presentation by City of Madison Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development http://www.visitdowntownmadison.com/uploads/media/Signs_at_SBAC_6-26-12.pdf
Soglin wants crack-down on illegal business signs Downtown
Read more: http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_ff8aeea0-bbf1-11e1-a079-0019bb2963f4.html#ixzz1yWxKmiWG