The domain of small business marketing is changing rapidly as technology is incorporated into the industry, yet according to PayScale; the median income for a small business owner is around $59,000 per year, with most people falling into the $26,000 to $153,000 range in the U.S, leaving a meager amount of room for allocating funds towards advertising.

Advertising through less expensive mediums is essential for small business owners in Rolla, who came together to vocalize to the Rolla City Council how the usage of signs for advertising is akin to their business remaining open, or their business suffering a tremendous drop in sales with the potential of having to close shop. Not to mention, the additional loss of sales tax revenue for the city.


The particular issue falls under the city’s sign ordinance; a 14-page, 15-year-old booklet on sign permits for buildings located within city limits. A law, which Amanda Finnell, with Teagirl Esthetics in Rolla, said is ultimately hindering local businesses since they don’t have enough revenue to spend money on marketing where places like Vistaprint offer the cheapest form of advertising: a $20 sign.


“Local newspapers charge money to do a spotlight on businesses. Radio ads and paper ads are too expensive,” said Finnell. “Some people live where their businesses are located, and you are saying they cannot put a sign in their yard”?


Another local small business owner who related to Finnell’s take on the high price of advertising was, Matthew Wick, of Heavenly Divine Cakes in Rolla. He stated at the city council meeting that Heavenly Divine Cakes is “a small, humble, bakery on Bishop," which runs on a "small shoestring budget" and has very little money for advertising.


The business relies on “word of mouth” to acquire customers, and Wick noted it would greatly help his business if he were allowed to have a sidewalk sign and swooper flag. He explained to the council that his store is located at the end of the building out of the main traffic area, and he hoped the council would revisit the sign ordinance in place by the city.


The sign ordinance has ultimately affected many small business owners in Rolla who came to the city to affirm their sales have declined after they were forced to remove their advertisements since the signs they used for promoting their businesses were violating the over a decade old city code.


Owner of Red Door Gifts and Boutique, Katy Combs, spoke on behalf of the Rolla Downtown Business Association and said her business has been in downtown Rolla for around 13 years where she has 10 employees. The ordinance in place hasn’t just harmed her store’s sales but her ability to donate to charities.  


In turn, she showed pictures of the signs she had used as adverts to the council and remarked she had received a letter from the city informing her that her business’s signs violated city code, which Combs didn’t realize. The removal of her Red Door Gifts and Boutique’s signs resulted in lower sales and lower sales tax revenue for the City as a consequence as well.


She further mentioned several downtown businesses had signed a petition asking the city to reconsider the sign ordinance that is hindering the small businesses in the community.


Another critical repercussion, relating to the violation of city code by using specific signs to advertise, was a loss of employment and growth for the establishments. Recently, small businesses have added more new jobs than large companies (500 or more employees). Businesses’ with 1-49 employees have contributed most to this growth, according to US Small Business Administration.


Last year, Hartley’s Climate Control owner, John Hartley, noted to the city council that he had 81 signs similar to real estate signs that he showed examples of to the council. He stated that City Inspector Kathleen McMeen contacted him about removing the signs because he was in violation of the city ordinance.


Hartley said to the council that the businesses are looking for an actual ruling on the type of signs and restrictions for advertising since the signs he had used around town allowed him to bring in more revenue and permitted the business to grow. As a result, he could then hire more employees, and he could purchase more permits from the city to provide income for Rolla through tax generation.


To paint a clearer picture of how the city's sign ordinance is harming small businesses around town, Hartley explained after having to remove his signs; he lost $117,000 in customer acquisitions.


The sign ordinance has been in effect for 14 years, and there has been no change in the past two years in accordance to the law, stated Rolla Mayor, Louis Magdits.  He noted that the current sign ordinance has “some ambiguities and some nuances.” He had helped craft the sign ordinance 15 years ago when he had a seat on the city council, and Mayor Magdits remarked a lot of work went into crafting the sign ordinance.


However, the ordinance was drafted 15 years ago to deter signs that residents might find offensive, such as yellow signs on two wheels with flashing lights that were pulled next to curbs where letters would fall out.  The intended purpose of the ordinance was not to bar the signs the small business owners were presenting at the city council meeting, which included: contractor, sandwich board, and realtor signs, observed Mayor Magdits.


In response to the small business owners issue with the 15-year-old sign ordinance, Mayor Magdits asked the council not to form a formal committee for the present problem because it would take months to complete, yet emphasized it is on the “city’s radar screen to recommend modifications to the city council.”


Concerning enforcement of the law, City Counselor Lance Thurman stated he didn't know how a formal action from the city could suspend the ordinance.


“The ordinance can either be amended or remain in its current form,” said Thurman. He further stated he is never going to be able to make a recommendation to the council to dissolve the law because “approving a motion not to enforce a law that is already on the books is probably not good legal advice.”


A concern brought forth by City Administrator John Butz indicated that the volume of temporary signs was a burden for both the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Rolla City Council. Still, he said some changes could be made, which can be accomplished by city staff looking at “good examples from other communities or by a committee," and it would take at least 60 days to make a change to the ordinance.


He advised giving staff an opportunity to work on an amendment, which he stated they would do as soon as possible.


While 60 days may not seem like a long time, owner of soon to be opened Soda and Scoops, Jenny Ruth, stated that at a recent conference on marketing she attended, she learned that signage, as presented to the city council at the Monday, July 16 meeting, affected 31.86 percent of sales brought in by small businesses.


“The sandwich type signs are what bring in business, and 31.86 percent of your sales would fall without signage like this,” exclaimed Ruth.


When the topic of a variance request, notably when a statute or regulation intent is not being achieved, was mentioned as a possible solution, Butz explained the statutes say if you have a Planning and Zoning Commission, you must also have a Board of Adjustment, which requires a four-fifths standard.


"The chance of a variance being granted is very restrictive," said Butz "Every single person would have to go through this process."