Lions, waiters and bears, oh my!

Let me begin today's column with praise to George Kramer for his long, hard and very exacting work on the newly re-installed Lithia Water fountains on the Plaza. I was nearly manic in the magic of the moment, then depressed when a workman shut down the waters for some esoteric repairs. It was a clear sign that I needed the lithium to take the edge off my mood swings.

After a healthy swig of the waters from a nearby source in the park I headed to the former Hillah Temple to observe the newly formed Task Force created to unscramble the city's recent decision to strictly enforce a very complex and somewhat flawed sign ordinance.

I was a little surprised by a few things that happened during the meeting. One was it was never made clear why strict enforcement of the ordinance was made a priority at this time. I have spoken with many hundreds of residents and merchants about this matter and not one has found the teddy bear, giraffe, lion or Wiley's Pasta waiter statue offensive in any way. Rather, to a person, they felt these touches added to flavor of the town.

There are many laws on the books and, if one were to enforce them all without using common sense or judgment, the whole town would be in a jail called Ashland.

I wondered why Don Laws, who served on the council since before dirt, was on the Task Force as a "Citizen at Large," especially after he stated his position that the sign code was responsible for the success of downtown businesses, which clearly, has not been the case.

In the early 1970s, after the sign ordinance had been in effect for several years, much of downtown Ashland was boarded up and the surviving businesses were doing poorly. The truth of the matter is that the counter-culture or hippies, if you will, descended upon the Plaza with their unconventional ideas and wooden signs and breathed new life into the business community. Nimbus, Rare Earth, Lithia Grocery and the Log Cabin were fresh and interesting to the tourists, and many locals alike.

We did not come to Ashland because of its sign code. It was just another thing that we had to work around in order to properly promote our business. Yes, the sign code uncluttered the landscape, but without new and inspired businesses, Ashland would have remained drab, boring and barely able to keep afloat. The timber industry was on its way out and Shakespeare was only open in the summer. Times were tough.

I also noticed that nine on the Task Force were either city employees, former or present members of the council and Planning Commission or were doing work for the city. The other five were merchants and one a member of the Public Arts Commission.

A few of the 25 or so members of the public took advantage of the three minutes given them to make a comment, then the meeting continued, now with the city administrator in charge. No one from the public spoke in favor of strictly enforcing the existing ordinance or had any complaints whatsoever about the bear, giraffe, lion or alfredo and one even broached the heart of the ordinance by saying not all neon is necessarily "bad."

There were a few 900 pound gorillas in the room, one of which being, "Who ordered the crackdown and why at this particular time?" The other item never mentioned by staff was that Lloyd Haines had engaged former city attorney Franell to draft a modified sign ordinance that might help the Task Force in its efforts. Unfortunately, the ordinance modification, submitted on Jan. 10 to the mayor, has not been made public or seen the light of day. I wondered why no mention of it was made by anyone in the city?

It went well for a first meeting and I admire the mayor for asking us to focus on what can happen instead of dwelling on what cannot. If his spirit prevails, we just might get a win/win out of this process and move on to more pressing matters.

Lance was last seen mowing his yard with a teddy bear sitting atop the battery compartment. Please send your feelings on this topic.

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