Doug Gourley has been able to see first-hand the effort the city has devoted to improving Palm Avenue.
The owner of As Good As It Gets, a gourmet shop located at 49 S. Palm Ave., Gourley is thrilled about the newly installed palm trees, landscape improvements and the roundabout at Ringling Boulevard.
He does have one complaint, though.
“Nobody comes down here,” Gourley said.
For all the improvements along the street, he believes the city has made a major misstep by not directing people to Palm Avenue so those improvements might be better appreciated — and so merchants like him could see an uptick in business.
He’s working to correct that oversight himself by advocating for wayfinding signs on Main Street that would make pedestrians aware of the businesses along Palm Avenue.
Gourley says the First American Bank building at the corner serves as a barrier to downtown shoppers. Given no reason to think otherwise, they assume there’s no shopping down the block, he says.
For the past four months, Gourley has been working with Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, on overcoming that hurdle. He presented his plans to the Downtown Improvement District (DID) Sept. 3. A 6-foot pole would hold 24 signs, each 3 inches tall, each listing a business in a given direction. Proposed sites for the signs include Palm and Main and the Five Points roundabout.
The cost wouldn’t be exorbitant — a few thousand dollars per sign — and it would solve the problem, Gourley said. He’d like to see it in place by November, though that would just be the first phase. Eventually, he thinks places such as Burns Square and Pineapple Square would pursue similar signage, and the program would be popular throughout the city.
It might not be that simple, though. Gourley’s work is just a fraction of the overall effort that’s gone into trying to establish wayfinding signs for businesses downtown. DID board member and Palm Avenue retailer Eileen Hampshire said similar plans have been in development for the better part of a decade; earlier attempts to install informational kiosks have been unsuccessful.
"It's been seven years that I know of that the city's been doing wayfinding,” Hampshire said. “Seven years — we're lost."
Gretchen Schneider, the city’s general manager of planning and development services, said the proposed signs would not comply with zoning regulations.
“You cannot have private businesses with signs out in the right of way,” Schneider said. “It would have to be done as part of the wayfinding program.”
Bill Nichols, an engineer with public works, said a process for appealing for alternate signage in the city’s wayfinding program is currently in development. As it stands, however, signs listing individual businesses would not be allowed.
At a Sept. 17 DID meeting, Gourley was incredulous the city might not allow his signs. When told signage in the right of way must have a governmental purpose, he argued his proposal would fit the bill.
"I would think trying to encourage the economic health of the city would be part of its governmental purpose,” Gourley said. “That's the issue at hand here, trying to get traffic down to the city's retailers."
Regardless of the city’s current regulations, he says the wayfinding is crucial.
Ultimately, he said, he’s confident the signage will eventually be put into place. In his eyes, it makes too much sense for the city to ignore.
“The idea for all of the points mentioned is to drive traffic, and that's what the city wants,” Gourley said. “It wants the city's merchants to be successful.”