Starting a successful small business is no small feat. In Chicago, it’s practically a miracle.
From sky-high taxes on commercial property to the endless red tape that led one journalist to describe starting a business in the Windy City as a “dystopian nightmare,” it’s enough to make an entrepreneur wonder whether Chicago politicians want her to succeed at all.
Take, for example, one of the first things any Chicagoan needs to start a traditional small business: a sign.
Doing something as simple as stenciling “Bob’s Plumbing” on a front door means navigating a city bureaucracy that requires a government-approved “sign erector,” involves at least three different city agencies, costs hundreds of dollars and can take months.
Bypassing the city’s byzantine procedures means risking fines of up to $15,000 per sign per day. In other words, a couple months of unapproved sign usage can easily cost a business $1 million in fines.
Chicago’s complex and punitive sign-approval process can sink a business. And it has. Jim Andrews, founder of Felony Franks, may know this better than anyone.
Chicago’s sign-permitting process relies heavily on the approval of local aldermen. But Bob Fioretti, the alderman on Chicago’s Near West Side where Felony Franks was located, didn’t like the name of Andrews’ hot-dog business, even though it played on the restaurant’s goal of rehabilitating ex-offenders by giving them steady jobs. Fioretti blocked Andrews’ request to hang a sign outside his business.
After a two-year-long court battle, Andrews won the right to hang his sign, but by then it was too late. Andrews had to close his shop. His son, Deno, now operates Felony Franks in suburban Oak Park.
Felony Franks is an extreme example. But the norm is equally alarming.
Alex Perry, president of Right Way Signs of Chicago, says his business spends 20 to 30 hours a week on sign permitting alone. When Perry doubled his staff from five to 10 people in September, he designated one employee to navigate sign permitting full time.
“One hundred percent of our clients think it’s the most ridiculous process they’ve ever gone through,” Perry said. “And 20 percent of them are new to Chicago.” He says he waited eight months for a permit to paint a sign at Columbia College.
Here’s how it works:
Putting up any sign in Chicago requires a “sign construction building permit.” A business owner must pay a licensed sign erector to file an application for this permit, which can take months. And Chicago’s Municipal Code defines a sign as anything from a sticker attached to a window for more than 60 days to neon lights.
If the sign overhangs the sidewalk, even by an inch, the business will also have to get a “public way use permit.” The entire City Council must vote to approve this permit before a business can put up its sign. This process can also take months, and the business owner must renew the public way use permit every five years by going through the same series of steps all over again.
It’s difficult to see how such a cumbersome process does anything to protect the safety or well-being of Chicagoans.
It also costs the city money. When businesses learn what’s necessary to put up a sign legally, they often try their luck and do it without a permit.
“There are so many hoops you have to jump through for a tiny little sign,” Perry said.
“If you’re doing the Trump sign, I understand. But if you’re doing a sign for a small business, these costs put them at a significant disadvantage. And if we tell a client we can’t do their sign without a permit, I know they’re leaving to find a business that will.”
“I even had a client willing to pay $5,000 to expedite the process to have his sign ready by opening day,” Perry said. “He ended up doing it without a permit and we lost that business.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Signs of Change, a Chicago advocacy group trying to streamline the sign-approval process, suggests simply requiring approval from the ward’s alderman and the department tasked with inspecting the sign (currently the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection) in order to gain a public way use permit. This is a big step in the right direction in terms of time and money saved for business owners, as they no longer would have to wait months for a full City Council vote. But the problem of aldermanic discretion remains.
Leaving ultimate power over signage in the hands of local aldermen means crossing the wrong politician at the wrong time could still affect a Chicagoan’s ability to market his business. It also puts an unnecessary burden on busy aldermen.
At most, a simple safety inspection should be all that’s required when someone wants to advertise his or her business with a sign. At the very least, the city should establish a one-step online application process for issuing sign permits.
Being a global, business-friendly city means more than just welcoming corporate headquarters to chic offices in the Loop. When it comes to simple signage, it means setting up a cheap, painless system and getting out of the way.
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