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Longboat Key Monday, Aug. 12, 2019 2 months ago

Longboat Key's new sign rules hit small business

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Simply Susanne's Cafe provides a case study of how the signage regulations vary in desired effect.
by: Sten Spinella Staff Writer

Longboat Key’s relatively new sign rules are hurting Simply Susanne’s Cafe, its proprietor Stacey Altherr contends.

It’s been seven months since the regulations, which govern temporary signs with size and placement restrictions, went into effect. Altherr attended a July 1 Town Commission meeting and spoke during the public comment section to make clear her displeasure at having to take down two signs outside the cafe. Altherr’s landlord received a courtesy note from the town in April about having to rid the signs from the premises.

One removed sign in particular, she thinks, has hurt her business.

“It just says ‘cafe,’ it was a yellow sign,” Altherr said. “It didn’t say anything else, and people would see it and say, ‘Oh, coffee!’ And that’s how our business grew; we’re a little place.”

The cafe stands at 3172 Gulf of Mexico Drive. The interior is small and charming, and there's outdoor seating as well. Altherr tailored it to be a community coffee and bagel (with other items, including sandwiches, available) spot on an island lacking in that department.

Its two remaining signs are permanent: one is large and not connected to the restaurant, but shares billing with much larger letters indicating an adjacent resort wear shop. The other sign is a small rectangle that essentially requires people to approach the storefront in order to see it.

Altherr brought out the now-removed "cafe" sign for a photoshoot.

After her public comment at the Commission meeting, Planning, Zoning & Building Director Allen Parsons spoke with Altherr about her grievance. He elaborated on the rules and was sympathetic to Altherr. Despite Altherr saying Parsons was well-meaning, even “lovely,” he ultimately couldn’t ameliorate the issue.

“He really was trying to help me,” Altherr said. “I said I could lose that sign no problem. I already threw it out, gone. But the other one that you know, it's such a tasteful sign. And I just don't see it as a problem. But they’re really set in their ways.”

Nothing changed after speaking at the Commission meeting and with Parsons. The other sign Altherr was told to lose was an old one she considered an eyesore.

According to Parsons, since the revised sign ordinance took effect, Code Enforcement has performed 314 inspections, opened 100 cases and closed 96 cases. Code Enforcement stows removed temporary signs inside the Planning, Zoning & Building Department for 30 days. The town doesn’t keep an active count of removed temporary or prohibited signs.

Parsons said the new rules have generally gone over well. He explained the impetus for the modifications.

“I think the changes in large part did have to do with aesthetics,” he said when asked whether the revised rules were meant to make sure Longboat doesn’t look like Siesta Key, Anna Maria Island or U.S. 41. “The intent was to reduce the overall size of the signage and then reduce the potential for the amount of signage in the town.”

Altherr noticed a downturn since removing her signs – a downturn even from last year when red tide was hitting its worst effects.

Altherr is from Long Island, New York, where she worked 30 years as a journalist for Newsday. She moved to Sarasota in June of 2016 and bought the space she turned into Simply Susanne’s in March of 2017. She called running a cafe “one of those bucket dream things,” and she felt confident in Longboat’s tourism reputation.

“Last year was a nightmare because of red tide,” Altherr said. Sales were so bad, I thought I was just going to close up shop. But we made it through.”

To keep track of her business from month to month and year to year, Altherr uses an app called Square. She said she’s noticed a downturn since removing her signs – a downturn even from last year when red tide was hitting its worst effects.

That said, Altherr is well-aware and generally supportive of why the town altered its signage rules. She bears no ill will toward Parsons nor the Commission. She was hoping for town leaders to create an exception, and they did not. But being down even $50 a day on any given week makes a huge difference for a small business like Simply Susanne’s.

“I was a reporter, I sat in meetings, and there were variances, they made exceptions,” Altherr said. “They sat as a board and they said, ‘Look, this person’s up against it. Let’s give them a six-month variance to try to fix this problem.’ They tried to be pro-business.”

Parsons said the town applies the sign rules equally, and no exceptions have been made to date.

At the time of the Commission meeting, Parsons suggested Altherr talk to her landlord about a solution involving a permanent sign. But her next move is still in flux.

“I went so out of my way to spend more money to get a tasteful sign and not something crazy,” Altherr said. “I really want to be a part of this beautiful island, and I don't want it to look like 41.”

Sten Spinella is a Town Hall Reporter for the Longboat Observer. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut and his master's degree from the University of Missouri. 

See All Articles by Sten

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