The city of Albany uses a formula based on the square footage of a business establishment to determine the size of signs that are allowed to advertise the business. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — B.J. Fletcher won a seat on the Albany City Commission last year partially because she promised voters she’d treat the business of the city much as she would one of her own businesses. It’s no surprise, then, that Fletcher comes down on the side of business owners, especially the thousands of small business owners in Albany, when it comes to the city’s sign ordinance.
“I have the greatest respect in the world for Judy Bowles, and I really want to keep Albany and Dougherty County beautiful,” Fletcher said of the director of the Keep Albany-Dougherty Beautiful organization. “But first, I want to keep Albany.”
Like several other small business owners who have started attending meetings of a sign task force convened to take a look at possible tweaks to the city’s sign ordinance, Fletcher makes no bones that she’s in favor of a less restrictive ordinance.
“We talk about retention of businesses in our community, and you’ll hear about our economic development folks checking in on MillerCoors, P&G, the Marine base and Phoebe,” Fletcher said. “That’s great; those businesses are vital to our community. But if you take all of their employees and added them together, they would not come close to the 20,000 or so employees who work for the 4,000 small businesses in our community.
“But do you ever hear of our economic development folks reaching out to our small businesses? We’re excited to get businesses like Gander Mtn. and Olive Garden in our community, but I promise you those businesses wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all the small businesses that keep our citizens employed.”
Restaurateur Bo Henry, who’s had his own sign issues with city officials over the years, said Friday he’s pleased to see Planning Director Paul Forgey heading up the latest sign task force.
“In the past, the city has had task forces made up of people who are not even here anymore,” Henry said. “I’m glad someone who understands what our small businesses are dealing with is involved. Because while all business owners know there have to be rules and regulations, that there can’t be a free-for-all, they also know in this tough economy and with our demographics it’s really hard to make it.
“My hope is that city officials will listen to business owners more this time and at least consider some give and take when they make their recommendations.”
Henry said the sign task force can easily find restrictive examples that put Albany businesses at a disadvantage.
“I want to make it clear that I am not a Lee County hater; quite the contrary, I think Albany and Lee County should have regulations that complement each other and help both,” the Stewbos co-owner said. “But our car dealerships are competing with Lee County dealerships, and they face more (sign ordinance) restrictions that keep them from drawing attention to their car lots. You’d think that with several dealerships having already moved into Lee County, the Albany folks would take a longer look at ways to help the local dealers.
“And when it comes to LED signs, the city has put a limit on the number allowed (75). What happens when, in the future, businesses that couldn’t initially afford the signs decide they want one but they can’t put one up because of some arbitrary number of signs? Those are the kinds of things that restrict businesses here.”
Forgey, who is leading a section-by-section discussion of the city’s sign ordinance with the task force to consider just such restrictions, said the city is unfairly criticized for not being “business friendly.”
“‘Business friendly’ is a moving target,” the Planning director said. “Sometimes what’s ‘business friendly’ to one person is a detriment to many more people. What we try to do is offer a level playing field.
“I frankly don’t see how people can say Albany is not business friendly. From the time a business shows interest, we work with them to get them to come here, and then we do everything we can to help keep them here. There’s no benefit, no good reason to run a business off. Now I’m not saying that hasn’t happened in the past, unfortunately, but I can assure you I’m going to do everything I can to prevent it on my watch.”
And yet there are business owners who question the city’s legislative intent. Jay Short, the president of Short & Paulk Supply Co., can’t believe that the city wants him to remove the iconic sign that sits on the roof of his 400 N. Cleveland St. building supply establishment.
“That sign was there for more than 50 years (on the former Giles Builders Supply establishment that closed in 2009 after 52 years in business), and now they’re saying I have to take the sign down because the city’s sign ordinance says no rooftop signs,” Short said. “I just don’t understand that kind of thinking.
“It makes me wonder if our city leaders realize the small businesses in the community are the ones who are paying all their salaries. We’re generating tax revenue, and unlike Wal-Mart, whose money goes to Bentonville, Ark., our money stays right here. And yet, even though I pay more to do business here than I do at my stores in Dawson and Sylvester combined, they’re giving me a hard time about my sign. It doesn’t make sense.”
Businessman Wayne Carter told the sign task force Thursday that, despite what they say are good intentions, city officials are “trying to legislate good taste.”
Fletcher said that while her heart is with the business owners, she’s in a position to help explain their concerns to her colleagues on the City Commission.
“People have asked if I’m a business person or a commissioner first, but what they don’t understand is that the commission is a business,” the freshman Ward III commissioner said. “I’m in a position to bring some of these concerns to the commission and put them on the table. That’s what I plan to do.
“I’m not saying a sign ordinance isn’t necessary. It is. But I think we’ve got to inject a little more common sense into our ordinance so we don’t have an understaffed Code Enforcement agency trying to track down minor infractions that no one has even complained about. We’ve got to uncomplicate this ordinance for our small businesses. They’re the foundation of our community, and even the best-built structure is in danger of collapsing if it’s built on a foundation with cracks.”