ORILLIA — Downtown business owners who have been taken to court are wondering if the city’s efforts to attract business are having the opposite effect.
At the heart of the matter is Orillia’s controversial sign bylaw.
It’s been on the books since 2000, but only recently has bylaw staff enforced it on a proactive basis. Enforcement used to be on a complaint basis.
City council put an end to that in August 2016, when the bylaw was updated and local politicians directed staff to seek out downtown merchants who were in contravention.
Since then, nine businesses have been charged.
Carl McRob will spend Valentine’s Day in court.
“They’re attacking the very businesses that are bringing people downtown,” said the namesake of Carl McRob Custom Goldsmith. “They could spend their resources more effectively than how they’ve approached this.”
McRob said he and others are “being bullied into getting a ridiculous permit.”
He has been told he needs a permit for the lettering he has on his front window.
According to the bylaw, a permit is needed for that type of signage. It costs $50. However, a permit for a window sign is not required if the business has already obtained one for an outdoor wall sign, like those seen above businesses. A permit for an outdoor wall sign can cost a few hundred dollars.
“I find that so asinine that I would rather go to court,” said McRob, who added he will likely remove the window sign instead of getting a permit. “I’m not here to serve the City of Orillia; I’m here to serve the people of Orillia.”
Across the road from McRob’s Mississaga Street East shop is Paper Kapers, which was slapped with four fines for being in contravention of the bylaw. Owner Ellen Wolper was also charged for not having a permit for her window sign, as well as a wall sign.
Two of the four charges against her were dropped.
Meanwhile, what used to be a sign above her store entrance is now an unsightly mess, but she didn’t get any flak about it.
Wolper is at the point where she is considering packing up and moving the business.
“How many of us have to leave?” she asked.
She also wondered whether the Downtown Orillia Management Board’s (DOMB) mandate was “to support us or to rat us out.” It’s the former, board manager Lisa Thomson-Roop assured.
When the bylaw was updated in 2016, one of the changes included having the DOMB be the initial point of contact for businesses breaching the bylaw.
“This was a nice way to help them come into compliance easier,” Thomson-Roop said. “It has worked well. We cleared a lot of them. Unfortunately, not all of them have come into compliance.”
That’s when bylaw enforcement takes action.
“I’m not a bylaw enforcer,” Thomson-Roop said. “My goal is that they comply and they don’t go any further. It’s in the city’s interest, too, that they comply.”
When the proactive enforcement began, more than 50 businesses were identified as not being in compliance. They were contacted by the DOMB and given ample time and warning, she said.
Shawn Crawford, the city’s manager of legislative services, said the reason only nine of those businesses were taken to court “is because a number of those (50-plus) businesses have simply said they were going to comply but have asked for more time.”
“They’ve shown they’re willing to comply. That’s the goal,” he said.
Business owners receive two or three letters before it gets to the legal stage, which is “an absolute last resort,” Crawford said.
Mark Cadeau and Donna Horton have a May 2 court date. The owners of The Kitchen Store are not planning to fight it.
“A bylaw’s a bylaw. I get it,” said Cadeau. “We want to move past this. We want to work with our city. I just think it’s a big waste of time.”
Their case involves not having a permit for a window sign.
“It’s a bit of an embarrassment,” Cadeau said. “When you’re brought to court, it makes you feel like a criminal.”
However, he has “no hard feelings.”
That’s not the case for Rick Sinotte.
The owner of Sinergy Clothing had a flashing sign in the window , which went against the bylaw.
He moved the sign onto a side wall, but it was still visible from the outside — also a no-no in the bylaw — and was fined $300.
“I have no problem paying for a sign permit,” he said. “What I do have a problem with is them telling (business owners) what they can do in their store.”
Before Sinotte left for vacation in Mexico, he said he polled 23 businesses to see if they had a problem with flashing signs. No one was opposed, he said, adding he feels a flashing sign draws more attention and is therefore good for business.
“This isn’t Cuba. We’re not a communist country,” Sinotte said.
He isn’t the only one who feels the city is too heavy-handed in determining how businesses market and advertise themselves.
“I personally don’t agree with having a heritage look,” said McRob. “Our heritage is developed by original thinkers in the past. (Business owners) clearly have a vision and they should be able to express themselves.”
Council’s DOMB representative said the rules are not intended to stifle creativity.
”We’re not trying to thwart them in any way. We’re trying to work with them,” said Coun. Pat Hehn. “I still think they can express themselves within the guidelines. You don’t need a flashing sign to express yourself. If a store says it’s open, I’m going to go in. A flashing sign’s not going to make a difference to me.”
The move to proactive enforcement “wasn’t done lightly,” she said, but added business are given “a lot of warnings.”
“It was a long process before they were taken to court. They could have avoided the court process right up until the court date. The choice the owners made was that they wanted their day in court,” Hehn said.
She feels the updated bylaw is working. When she looks at other municipalities’ downtown cores, “we compare very favourably.”
Thomson-Roop advises anyone with concerns or questions about the bylaw to reach out to her.
“Usually, I can come up with three or four options of how they can be in compliance,” she said.
Staff is still focusing on Mississaga Street businesses, after which efforts will turn to the side streets downtown.