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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Downtown business owners speak out against Madison's sign restrictions at public forum
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A majority of the attendees were against the city's signage restrictions.
Credit:Scott Girard

Madison business owners took advantage of a forum on Tuesday night to criticize Mayor Paul Soglin's efforts to crack down on violations of city ordinance regarding signage.

While the mayor was not present for the meeting at the Overture Center, Matt Tucker, zoning director for the Department of Planning & Community & Economic Development, explained the law and listened to comments from attendees.

"A lot of people saw and learned about signage, and I'm happy that happened," he said afterwards.

However, throughout the two-hour meeting, Tucker was met with hostile comments from local business leaders, who criticized the city's recent focus on sign regulations, especially with regards to "sandwich board" signs on sidewalks.

"We have more acute issues that are really upsetting the citizens of Madison," said John Taylor, who owns J. Taylor's at 18 N. Carroll St. "Why don't you just leave [business owners] alone?"

Sara Hunter, a manger at Shakti on State Street, agreed with the sentiment, saying the city has bigger problems than "freaking sandwich board signs." Her statement elicited applause from the room.

Some of the other regulations Tucker mentioned included limits on the space signs can occupy in store windows, restrictions on streamers or "dancing windsock guy" displays, and height and size limits for real estate signage.

Towards the end of the meeting, Paragon Video and Stereo owner Steve Puntillo asked everyone in the room for a hand vote for who was against the ordinances. A majority of the 100 or so people in attendance raised their hands in response.

Mimosa Books and Gifts owner Diane Doughman said these regulations only serve to undermine small, locally owned businesses, which have less money for advertising than large national chains.

"We are a threatened species -- independent small businesses," she said. "Please protect us, we are the little guy."

One solution suggested by Tucker was so-called "blade signs," which jut out from a building, and are generally allowable according to the regulations. However, Mary Carbine, executive director of the Madison Central Business Improvement District, said those signs can be costly and are not permitted on historic-designated buildings, and therefore not a realistic solution for everyone.

Her organization is among the many business-oriented groups that have worked with the city in recent months to find a middle ground on the signage issue, one that would support both the city's and businesses' goals.

"We in Madison want to nurture and grow our small business, and we heard loud and clear that the portable sign, the sandwich board, is crucial to a lot of them," Carbine said.

Ashley Parr, who owns the newly opened Square Wine Company, suggested the city charge a fee for displaying a sandwich board sign, saying such a sign would likely bring in more money for her business than a fee would cost.

Moving forward, Tucker said he is excited to see how the city works with the business community to come to a solution.

"There's some discussions that we're going to be circling back on with the mayor, and just thinking about some direction and probably talking to the policymakers," he said.

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