TELLURIDE — In the present economy it is difficult enough for restaurants and retailers to make ends meet even when they possess wide glass storefronts on Colorado Ave. with which to beckon passersby inside to browse or stop for an afternoon snack.
Which is why earlier this month the three owners of Tommy’s, a bar and restaurant tucked away from the main street thoroughfare down the dim central corridor that runs through the ground floor of the Elks Building, decided they needed some help.
From Colorado Ave. the view of Tommy’s main entrance is already partially obscured by a stairwell leading to the second floor of the building. And if that weren’t troublesome enough for a business dependant on foot traffic, the daytime lighting that surrounds the restaurant makes it appear to be closed even when it isn’t.
Customers “walk in the door and say, ‘Are you open?’” co-owner Stacy Ticsay said. “It happens all the time.”
So when a regular customer suggested that a lighted “open” sign could help solve that problem, it seemed like a good idea.
After searching the Internet she found a satisfactory sign – the single word “open” displayed in simple, easy-to-read block letters, aligned vertically.
Not only was it inexpensive, it was also made from energy efficient LED lights – not neon, as is expressly prohibited in the town Land Use Code, Ticsay emphasized. It seemed perfect.
The Tommy’s owners hung the sign in their window and admired the view. It was bright and eye-catching enough to remain visible during the day, according to Ticsay, but not so busy as to be offensive – she thought.
So it came as a surprise when Tommy’s received a letter from the Town Planning Department dated March 3 advising the restaurant that it was in violation of an LUC prohibition against neon signs and so needed to remove the “open” sign.
But the light wasn’t neon, they countered, and so thought it was compliant with the code.
Nevertheless, what the Tommy’s owners failed to realize in their own interpretation of the LUC is that not only are neon lights off-limits, but so are any and all forms of signs with lights. The only exception to the rule is for historic signs like the one that announces the Sheridan Opera House – and those require approval from the Historic and Architectural Review Commission.
Tommy’s received a second letter dated March 6 advising the restaurant to remove the sign because it still violated the LUC.
The owner’s did remove it, but shortly thereafter they placed a neon bicycle sign – the New Belgium Brewing Company’s Fat Tire Amber Ale logo – in their kitchen where it was visible to the public. Now, to their surprise, the town threatened to prosecute.
“It was a weird position to be in,” said Ticsay. “All we are trying to do is make our business work.”
But to Town Planning Director Chris Hawkins, the progression to threat of prosecution was logical.
“We always prefer to take a friendly approach,” he said, adding that Tommy’s had not only received several warnings on this occasion, but that in 2007 the court found the restaurant to be in violation of the LUC for installing signs without permits.
“This has been an ongoing pattern,” he said.
“That was a really innocent mistake,” said Ticsay, explaining that the person the owners hired to make the signs for the restaurant when it first opened in 2007 assured them that he would submit the proper paperwork to the town and never did.
“We’re not sitting around thinking about ways to violate the sign law,” she added.
The Tommy’s incident has sparked a larger debate within the community about whether or not the town’s sign regulations are outdated or otherwise too restrictive.
“There could be a banner over main street and you’re not allowed to put a sale sign in your window,” said Harley Brooke-Hitching, emphasizing that point at a recent meeting of the Telluride Business Alliance.
“There is an emerging need to revisit those regulations because they haven’t been updated for some time,” said Hawkins, remaining careful to emphasize that even with an update the sign laws might not change.
Ticsay and other business owners like Pip Kenworthy, whose basement level consignment store set back from main street is another difficult retail location, wonder if the town can’t relax the code to allow businesses with poor visibility to use more prominent signage – particularly because the country is in a massive recession.
“If we can’t let people know we’re here, how are we going to stay in business?” asked Kenworthy, who said that the town also asked her son to extinguish the small, red neon “open” light displayed in her window when he was working there a few weeks ago.
“I told him, ‘Don’t you dare turn it off,’” she said. “It is important for my business to have, I know that much.”
“There should be some sort of exception made to be more pro-business,” said Ticsay.
“Signs with lights are prohibited in all of the town,” said Hawkins. “It’s designed to preserve the town’s historic character,” he said, adding that laws must continue to be enforced even in a difficult economy.
The question has no easy answer in a far-flung historic landmark district like Telluride that depends on tourist dollars for survival.
“There’s obviously good reason why the sign ordinance is strict,” said Scott McQuade who, as a member of the HARC, is charged with ensuring the town’s historic character remains intact.
“But I can certainly understand the businesses need to get customers in the door and somewhat having their hands tied,” he continued, weighing in on the debate in his other role as Chief Executive Officer of the Telluride Tourism Board.
“They may have to contemplate whether they spend more on advertising,” he said.
“If we start to change too much we run the risk of impairing the visual appearance of the town,” he continued, noting that many visitors come here specifically to enjoy Telluride’s historic landmark status.
“The concern would be that once you open that door how far open does it swing,” he said.
“We’re not trying to turn the town into Vegas; I respect the historic nature of the town,” said Ticsay. But, “Sometimes you just have to rethink things.”