Federal Way sign code still drawing fire

Occupancy at the Federal Way Travelodge is down. Way down, in fact.

Manager Mike Pana wants to get the word out about special mid-week rates, but he says he can’t.

For that, he blames the City of Federal Way.

The city’s award-winning – and sometimes ire-triggering – sign ordinance has Pana up in arms as his motel has become largely vacant. Pana wants to place a banner on his business sign to advertise his $42.50 mid-week room rate, but such a sign is banned by city code.

“They are after me for a small sign,” he said. “In this city, they are so ridiculous.”

He added the city hasn’t listened to businesses located along major thoroughfares that can no longer can draw street traffic. Travelodge used to fill more than 30 of its 44 rooms most nights. Now, occupancy is down to single digits at the year-old motel.

“Last night I had four rooms,” he said on Thursday. “It’s not just me. There are other people ... they’ve got the same problem.”

But city Community Development Services Coordinator Kathy McClung said the revised sign code has been on the radar for a long time. In 1995, the city made major changes to its sign ordinance, essentially prohibiting pole signs and most banners. The code allows temporary banners in such instances as grand openings, anniversary sales and community-wide events, but even then banners can only remain up for about a month, depending on the duration of the event.

Pana’s attempts to place his banner announcing room rates has been shot down, he said.

So is there any chance the city could consider relaxing rules for businesses that cater to out-of-towners? “Anything’s possible,” said Assistant City Manager Derek Matheson.

“The industry would have to bring that orward to the city council in a public meeting,” he said.

But, Matheson added, the city Lodging Tax Advisory Committee is working on significant promotion efforts — in both short- and long-term — to bring more overnight visitors to the city. That’s something that has not existed in previous economic downturns.

At a recent City Council meeting, McClung told the council that, of the more than 800 original sign compliance cases, only 28 remained this month.

Moreover, the sign code has gained national recognition.

Also at the council meeting, Lloyd Skinner, an American Planning Association board member lauded the council for the ordinance, which last summer won an APA implementation award.

“We were impressed with the balance of incentives and enforcement,” Skinner said.

Businesses had until March 2000 to comply with the revised sign code, and many did.

The city also sent out letters in 1999 to all businesses that weren’t in compliance, and offered to meet with business leaders to find the least expensive means to comply with the code, McClung said.

Most cooperated and appreciated the solution, she said, before adding. “Of course, we’re not going to have an answer for everybody.”

One of the businesses that didn’t like any of the city’s answers was Jet Chevrolet on Enchanted Parkway. The high-volume car dealer had to remove three of its signs, including ones facing Interstate 5 that drew in new customers, said Jet General Manager Dan Johnson

Johnson called the sign code, an “absolute nightmare.”

“They kinked all their business people in this town,” he said. “They wouldn’t bend one inch. Not one little bit.”

Jet Chevrolet had to take down more than $300,000 worth of signs, and put up less visible new signs at a cost of more than $50,000, he said.

“That freeway sold a lot of vehicles for us over the years,” he said. “We’re not getting a lot of drive by traffic anymore.”

McClung said the city tried hard to work with Jet Chevrolet. City Manager David H. Moseley has offered to meet with Jet representatives, but has never gotten a response.

Of course, not all business owners are unhappy with the sign ordinance. Scott Brown, past president of the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce, said the city made great strides to make its sign code workable for most businesses.

The sign code expressly suggests that signs should “enhance the economic well-being of all businesses within the city, and in particular recognize the needs of all businesses to identify their premises and advertise their products.”

Brown, operation manager of the Best Western Executel and Comfort Inn of Federal Way, said he would like some signs to be placed higher.

“Is it perfect? Probably not.” he said, “But overall, the city did a nice job in trying to work with business owners.”

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