The recent furor over sidewalk "sandwich" signs in Westminster, where many businesses are struggling, might make one think these signs are the key to making it on Main Street.
The debate in Westminster City Council over the signs unfortunately focused on individual, short-term benefits to the businesses rather than on the long-term overall appearance and viability of downtown.
Testimony from Main Street merchants ultimately convinced the council to allow these signs. Heinz Luesse, the owner of Heinz Cake and Gift Haus, told the council that after city officials ordered him to remove a free-standing sign that advertised his daily specials, his business suffered. Stores in Westminster "are bleeding," he told a sympathetic council.
Indeed, since the reconstruction of East Main Street began last spring, the traffic flow downtown has been disrupted, and many businesses are not attracting as many customers as before.
However, allowing merchants to put out sidewalk signs will not solve this problem; residents perceive parking and access to be major impediments to shopping downtown, especially with the work going on; it's not a lack of knowledge about daily specials that's keeping them out.
What is really at issue here is the appearance of downtown once Main Street returns to normal. Advertising signs that are tasteful, appropriately sized and do not clutter the sidewalk are good ideas. The council wisely took into consideration the needs of residents and visitors as well as the merchants in placing restrictions on the signs so that they do not impede pedestrian traffic or interfere with people parking their cars.
The policy of renewing sign approvals every 30 days also will ensure that Westminster's sidewalks won't be overrun with signs. If the clutter becomes too great, city officials have the power to remove them without long delays.
People often complain about the sign clutter of commercial strips, but are usually drawn to them by ample parking and easy access. Any downtown is going to have trouble competing with the suburban strips on those counts. But a downtown really has little to offer if it mimics the clutter of the strip malls and loses the character that is its greatest appeal.