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Largo debates coming sign deadline
City staff gives an update on progress toward monument signs
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Everest University on East Bay Drive is one of 49 businesses that has converted its pole sign to a monument sign since Largo passed an ordinance in 2007 requiring all businesses to make the transition in 10 years. The Mattress Firm sign, left, is an example of a pole sign.
LARGO – A total of 753 pole signs within the city of Largo still need to be replaced with 8-foot monument signs in the next three years in order for businesses to avoid fines in 2017.

Largo commissioners debated the feasibility of that order as the main topic of discussion March 13. They all agreed that the city needed to launch a better marketing campaign to let businesses know of the coming deadline.

They disagreed about the merits of the requirement, designed to make Largo’s roadways look less “tacky,” as Mayor Pat Gerard put it. They even were divided as to how possible it would be for more than 700 businesses to make the switch.

“It’s impossible. There’s no way that’s going to happen,” said Commissioner Jamie Robinson. “In my opinion, it’s crazy. I just can’t believe we’re doing this.”

Robinson later clarified that he wasn’t against eventually doing away with pole signs within the city. Commissioner Curtis Holmes also was fine with requiring that businesses make the change when pole signs need to be replaced. Already, 76 monument signs have been built as new businesses have opened or redeveloped their property.

But Holmes, who runs First Southeast Insurance out of an office condo on Belcher Road, is one of the business owners who will have to pay for a new sign. He and nine other businesses in the two-building complex will have to split the cost to replace their pole sign.

“To comply, it’s going to cost us $2,000 per owner, $20,000 total,” he said. “I think this should have been grandfathered in. If a sign is damaged, replace it. Storm hits it, replace it. But to tell these people that they’ve got three more years to comply or the city’s going to get on them, that’s not a very good way to do this thing.”

The smaller monument signs, which can be a maximum of 8 feet tall, will be harder to see from the road, he argued, dangerous even for the motorists trying to read them while traveling at the speed limit of Largo’s major roads.

Complexes that are larger than 3 acres could have a larger sign, city planner Christine McLachlan clarified.

Addressing Holmes’ point that gas stations trying to advertise gas prices were especially at a disadvantage, Gerard said that several new filling stations had opened since 2007 and complied by installing electronic monument signs.

“If I’m going 40 miles per hour I can’t see that pole sign either. And I can’t remember the last time I went 40 miles per hour on Ulmerton Road,” she said.

Commissioner Robert Murray said that Largo’s roadways have undergone a “unique transformation” by reducing the pole signs.

“I would hate to do away with the ordinance in and of itself,” he said, arguing instead that the city takes into account the economic downturn by delaying the deadline for compliance.

The city’s community development department does have an assistance program that gives $250 to businesses making the transition, but Gerard said she knew when it passed that that incentive was “too measly” to make a difference. Only three businesses have utilized those funds.

“I would like to see us – if we’re serious about this – put serious money into providing incentives … $250 is not serious,” she said. “And I would be open, given the downturn, to extending the deadline and doing a very active marketing campaign.”

Commissioner Woody Brown said it would be unfair to the businesses who did purchase a new sign to change the ordinance too significantly. Gerard agreed.

“If you don’t have a deadline, it’ll never happen,” she said. “It’s not just going to happen by attrition (that would) take 40, 50 years.”

Commissioner Michael Smith said the ordinance flew in the face of the city’s efforts to be business-friendly.

“In a few years, (they’re) going to be here with pitch forks and axes, after all of our heads. And I really don’t want to be here for that,” he said.

Gerard said the ordinance was about maintaining a vision for the city.

“It’s about having a backbone too, you know, and be willing to say this is what we want for our city,” she said. “We can continue to look tacky, but that’s not what we want.”

Gerard said she did want to know how other cities went about similar transitions. The city of Clearwater provided a $5,000 grant per building owner or tenant, according to the city’s past research. Staff promised to provide more research on that and other cities’ efforts.

Holmes questioned how soon businesses annexing into the city after 2017 would have to replace existing pole signs and if new tenants could just change the face of an existing sign before the deadline.

Community Development Director Carol Stricklin said the city hadn’t established a policy for annexed signs after 2017 yet. She also clarified that currently, only if a property was redeveloped or abandoned for more than 90 days did the city require that the pole sign come down.

Community development staff will be working with the marketing department to come up with a new advertising campaign, beyond informing businesses through their business receipts. The Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce also has helped the city get the word out to businesses.

Robert Klute, assistant community development director, said before the meeting that educating businesses was key to the success of the transition.

“We don’t wish to wait until the end of the amortization period. We want to be proactive with this,” he said.

Another work session will be scheduled to discuss more incentives and the city’s ideas for a marketing campaign.
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