It seems relatively minor, this question of when Oro Valley businesses should be required to turn off their back-lighted exterior signs. 10 p.m.? 11? Never? Is it important?
Yes, it is, to Oro Valley merchants who are struggling through these difficult times. The Oro Valley lighted sign question has become a "lighting rod" — sorry — focusing the greater frustrations of business people who believe town government is anti-business. That's why there are badges labeled "dusk to dawn" — the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce position that lights be allowed all night. That's why the chamber plans to pack the council chambers Wednesday, for a public hearing on amendments to the sign ordinance that would permit wall signs to be illuminated until 10 p.m., or be turned off "immediately upon closing, whichever is later."
Interestingly, a 10 p.m. lights-out requirement would be a liberalization of current policy for, say, a business that closes at 8 p.m., and is required to turn off its lights no later than an hour after closure.
Still, business people would respond, any enforcement by the town on this subject is too much enforcement. They've had enough, already, and it's a pain exacerbated by recession. Business people cite examples — increased impact fees that hurt development, stringent rules on exteriors, delays on occupancy permits, punitive regulations on signage and advertisement — in which Oro Valley makes it harder to make a profit.
Is Oro Valley business-friendly? It depends on who you speak with. Many people find the permitting processes too slow and expensive, and the enforcement of rules too picky.
Others say Oro Valley staff has been friendly and cooperative. And, don't forget, Fortune Magazine named Oro Valley one of the top communities in America in which to live and launch a small business.
Yet there is a perception about OV. Some of it falls on the wounds, apparently still bleeding, from the Oro Valley Marketplace disagreements. Nor does it help that the town council no longer funds a contract with the chamber to provide services.
Still, the staffs of the chamber and the town have worked together on several fronts, such as the Shop OV campaign, and regular business recruitment and retention visits.
Oro Valley does not need, nor want, the reputation as hostile toward business. Businesses have choices on where they locate. In some circles, you say "Oro Valley," and investors say "No." That cannot be allowed to continue. Decision-makers know as much, they should be concerned, and they should do something about it. Remember, the Oro Valley town government funding model is predicated upon growth and business activity. Government gets its money from sales taxes, and construction taxes, and it needs sales and construction so it can provide services.
More than once, business people have complained that Oro Valley "wants us to be here and to pay our taxes, but they don't want us to be seen." Or this, from the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce — Oro Valley is "happily charging businesses taxes, but would prefer that they have no customers."
Business must be cautious about playing the tax card. Yes, Oro Valley has an $80 annual business license, and yes, it collects a 2 percent sales tax on goods sold and a 4 percent construction materials tax. But Oro Valley-specific demands for taxes from businesses are relatively light. State and county government, and education, exact a much higher toll in terms of property tax. (Disclosure: The Explorer's office is located in unincorporated Pima County.)
So what do you do, if you're the Oro Valley Town Council? Listen, respectfully, to the concerns. Arrive at a compromise. Marana allows lights on until 11 p.m. That's not unreasonable. Even midnight.
We're big believers in choosing battles. The chamber is moving strongly on this one, and power to them. "We must mobilize the voice of business," the chamber cries in its communications, and it appears to be doing just that over lighted signs.
There's another issue looming in 2010. Remember that certain outside agencies accepted less funding from town government in fiscal 2009-'10, hoping for a restoration next fiscal year as well as a commitment by government toward greater economic development resources and activity. That's a big, important deal. That's a tussle to take on.
Let's find the happy medium on lighted signs, and get on to the big tasks ahead.