Ordinance irking shopkeepers

By Ryan Cornell

STRASBURG — An ordinance passed by Town Council three years ago is just now being enforced, and some shopkeepers are not happy about it.

The ordinance addresses outdoor displays of merchandise on public sidewalks. It states that merchandise displayed outside must be taken back inside when the store is closed and must allow at least 4 feet of clear sidewalk for pedestrians to pass.

But what troubles the shopkeepers most is a rule that restricts their displays to 50 percent of their storefront’s width. And for many of these shopkeepers, this cuts down on sales.

Debbie Pitcock, owner of Kids Come First, said she had to split her outdoor display by nearly half after she was approached by the town’s code official.

“I’ve been here for 20 years and this is part of the reason I have survived all these years,” she said. “This is sincerely what makes people stop.”

One shopper buying a chair at the consignment shop agreed.

“I don’t mind seeing stuff out there,” said the customer. “I always drive by to see what’s out there. I just think it’s a lot better to have stuff out there than all of the empty buildings.”

Pitcock said most of her customers, who are from out of town, are passing through on the weekends and stop because they’re drawn in by what they see in front of her shop.

“The more I put out, the more I sell,” she said. “Putting stuff out at least lets people know that I’m out here and open.”

Since she’s started limiting her display to 50 percent of the storefront, she said customers have been asking her if she’s closing. She said she thinks the town is going to start restricting more sidewalk space in the future.

“It would be hard to start a business in this economy anyway, but I would not have opened my store had this ordinance been in effect back then,” she said.

Outside the Dollar General, shopping carts filled with plastic cups, citronella candles and bags of mesquite lump charcoal advertised their marked-down prices.

Manager Preston Jenkins, who said he has not had any run-ins with the town’s code official, agreed that the storefront displays are important to his sales.

“One thing I’ve realized in this town is, for some reason, if it’s left in the store it doesn’t sell that well,” he said

“You’ll have them [customers] maybe coming here because they want to buy a 12-pack of Coke and on the way in the door they see that and the markdown,” he said. “So it’s an impulse buy.”

David Lassiter, owner of E. Pearls, said he was approached five different times about complying with the ordinance.

Lassiter, who said 70 percent of his sales come from his storefront displays, recalled when the town was cutting down the trees along King Street and he had to bring everything inside.

“Those three months, my business dropped down to where I could hardly even pay my bills,” he said. “There was no money.”

Traditionally, he would leave his shelves of merchandise in front of the store overnight, but now he spends about an hour of his day taking it in and out of his store. Not only did leaving it outside make Strasburg feel safer, he said, but also people wanting to buy his items when the store was closed could leave a note with their name and pay for it the next morning.

Lassiter said rather than attracting new businesses, the town is doing just the opposite. Instead of measuring the sidewalk in front of his store, he said the town should be more concerned with the cracks in the sidewalk that could cause injuries, and the buildings that aren’t up to code.

“I feel like we’re going to lose our downtown and I feel like we’re going to push what we have out,” he said. “If I were going to come to this town today, I would not open a business in this town, I would move on.”

That’s unfortunate, said Mayor Tim Taylor. “Especially since we’re trying to push economic development and revitalize our downtown,” he said.

He said the town wants to be as business-friendly as possible, but that businesses should be aware of ordinances.

“When it comes to an ordinance that’s in place, we should be enforcing it,” he said about the recent crackdown. “That’s on us.”

According to Strasburg Code Official Fred Wharton, the recent enforcement of the ordinance is “a decision that was made that we need to enforce what’s on the books.”

Wharton also serves as the code official in Middletown, which he said has no rules regarding the length of storefront displays. He said the 50 percent number came as the result of a compromise established in public hearings and that the ordinance could always be changed.

Town Manager Judson Rex said the ordinance was created in response to complaints from the community. He said the rule had been enforced before.

“We’re certainly sensitive to what it takes to own and operate a business in town,” he said. “…We feel if the policy in the books needs to be looked at, we’re open to do that.”

Councilwoman Sarah Mauck said many of the buildings on King Street have large display windows and noted that Buggy B’s does an excellent job of using theirs.

“I don’t believe it’s whether you can put your merchandise on the street or sidewalk that dictates whether you thrive in Strasburg,” she said.

She added that she doesn’t think the ordinance holds businesses back from coming to town.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com