Proposed Atwater ordinance could ban sign-twirlers

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 30, 2014 

— City leaders who said changes to an ordinance would limit where human billboards can stand are now saying the proposed ordinance would ban them altogether.

Human billboards are typically people who twirl signs or dress up in costumes, usually to advertise a product or business.

Officials originally said the ordinance would force human billboards or sign twirlers to stand 100 feet from an intersection. However, the revised ordinance will prohibit them anywhere in the city.

“There was some confusion between the Planning Commission and some rumors were going out there,” said Atwater Police Chief and City Manager Frank Pietro. “But the initial ordinance prohibited all human billboards.”

If approved by City Council, the ordinance would also prohibit outdoor promotional flags and air dancers, which are inflatable devices that are powered by fans to cause movement.

The sign ordinance has bounced between the Planning Commission and City Council for the last few years, but Pietro said city officials are committed to improving it. “We’re going to keep tweaking it until we get it right,” Pietro said. “It’s been under discussion for a couple of years.”

The most recent update was presented to the City Council last week, but council members expressed concerns with the changes and sent it back to the commission after a discussion.

The issue won’t come back to the council again until May or June, said Scott McBride, the city’s community development director.

Pietro said he doesn’t have a problem with human billboards, as long as they stay on the sidewalk. “I can’t remember once that we’ve had an accident caused by them,” he said. “The only thing I have an issue with is when they get carried away by all the flags for the same business.”

Those in favor of the proposed ordinance said the signs can block the view of drivers, be a distraction to drivers and potentially impact the city’s image.

Officials from the Atwater Chamber of Commerce opposed the ordinance changes, saying restricting certain types of advertisement will hurt businesses struggling in a troubled economy. Many small businesses can’t afford radio or newspaper advertising, said chamber President Connie Hunter.

Denise Carrasco, office manager at Liberty Taxes in Atwater, said getting rid of the sign twirlers will hurt her business. “The signs help tremendously,” she said. “If you don’t draw attention to the business, you don’t make money.”

After being warned by the city’s code enforcement officer about the ordinance, Carrasco said she reduced her sign twirlers’ schedule from six days down to one or two days.

She estimates getting six or seven customers when the sign twirlers are outside, but zero customers when they’re not.

“I’ve backed off having my waver out there the last few weeks and it’s hurt my business,” Carrasco said. “They asked us to take our signs down at some point and they may take our flags away.”

Besides attracting new customers to the business, Carrasco said this type of advertising provides jobs to people.

Merced resident Jaycee Alameda, 20, has been working as a sign twirler for Liberty Taxes since January. Before getting that job, Alameda said he was unemployed for nearly seven months.

“It’s hard to come by jobs and it’s not the ideal circumstances, but I was raised to work hard if you want something – and this is me working for it,” Alameda said. “Even though I’m getting paid minimum wage, other people see how hard I’m working.”

Alameda said he gets lots of honks and waves, and some people stop to tell him he made their day. The job as a sign twirler led to Alameda getting noticed by a Starbucks store manager, who offered him a full-time career.

“It led to better opportunities,” Alameda said, adding that it helped support his wife and young child.

Last week, Planning Commissioner Fred Warchol said the commission voted unanimously in support of the ordinance changes, with one commissioner absent during the meeting.

“The consensus among all the commissioners is that these signs are obstructing the view of drivers and impacts the aesthetics of the city in general,” he said.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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