Sign Permitting: The New Chicago Way

chicago sign code sign permitsSometimes a hard-fought success provides a road map for the way ahead.

Such is the story in Chicago, where the International Sign Association (ISA), the Illinois Sign Association, and a coalition of business groups have worked for several years to unwind a laborious sign permitting process. It is a story of commitment and collaboration that could pay off in virtually any city and town, no matter the size.

Recently we were able to celebrate another positive step forward in this lengthy process in Chicago. This victory was not only good for sign, graphics, and visual communications companies there, but it also provides insight into building ways that we can work together to improve the codes and permitting process anywhere.

Let’s back up a bit: Chicago has long had one of the most challenging sign code processes, with mazes of approvals needed (“Going Against the Wind,” September 2019). Even the councilmember in the area where the sign would appear had to sign off. Adding to the complexity, a recent requirement was that every sign appearing in the public way (the majority of them) had to be reapproved every five years.

This process was difficult for small businesses to follow—creating layers of complexity for sign, graphics, and visual communications companies too. In some cases, businesses opened without having a sign installed. In other instances, they did so without the sign legally permitted.

When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor in 2019, it looked like things would change. When Lightfoot presented her first budget address in October, it became clear that she took this issue seriously. “I heard about the regulatory mess that businesses of all sizes face in merely getting signage,” she said. “I want the business community to know that we heard you, and we are fixing this problem today.”

It took a good while to get to that statement, but there were a few key reasons we got here. And these steps can be implemented anywhere.

Winning Strategy #1: Refuse the Status Quo.

Alex Perry with Right Way Signs of Chicago was a driving force behind these changes. A former Chamber of Commerce executive, Alex brought ISA and the Illinois Sign Association into the issue—and that was the first step to emulate.

While ISA and affiliated associations monitor news of sign code changes, in some cases, we don’t know about it until you tell us. In the case of Chicago, sign companies had encountered these challenges for a long time—and put up with it because that was the way things were done.

Alex was named the 2017 ISA Sign Code Champion for his tireless work on the issue. His unwillingness to accept “the way it’s always been done”—and his hours of involvement throughout the years—was important. Yes, it’s hard work and it takes time away from doing day-to-day operations. But who knows how Alex has transformed his business—and the industry as a whole—for the future?

Winning Strategy #2: Find Others Impacted.

Because this issue had so many tentacles, it impacted businesses small and large—and not just in our industry. Working alongside the Small Business Advisory Council and local chambers of commerce put a lot of weight behind our argument. It wasn’t just sign, graphics, and visual communications companies wanting to sell more signs that made the case for change.

New businesses—the lifeblood of any local economy—were able to talk about how much this had cost them, or how it had impacted opening day. Those are powerful stories, and for local officials, it’s their constituents and voters doing the talking.

This is a strategy that ISA is implementing throughout the country: collaborating with like-minded groups. Area chambers of commerce are an obvious first place to start. While ISA and affiliated associations are building these relationships, it is important for local companies to get involved too.

Winning Strategy #3: Put Competition Aside.

One of the biggest steps forward in the ISA/Illinois Sign Association/Small Business Coalition effort was a June 2018 Chicago Sign Summit. The event brought dozens of Chicago-area sign companies to generate ideas. The group identified several key areas of Chicago’s sign code—and how it is administered—that needed to be updated and streamlined.

Companies that may compete for that new restaurant project or the new corporate campus signage were able to put aside that competition and focus on the bigger picture. Improved sign code changes would allow a bigger piece of the pie for everyone—or at least a reduction in the time and cost of the frustrating permitting process.

Winning Strategy #4: Stay the Course.

This was not one meeting and victory. It took place over nearly four years. There were small steps forward, such as a 2016 victory in removing the public comment period from the approval process.

While that helped, it was not enough. Council members still held too much power. Lightfoot had indicated a willingness to listen on the issue when she was running for office and, thanks to ongoing work, was convinced that these changes would better all of Chicago.

That is perhaps the biggest lesson of all. Working with local officials—whether in a city the size of Chicago or the smallest town in your market—is rarely one-and-done. Progress is slow. Education takes time.

If we go away after the first minor step forward or first setback, we often won’t ever see the end result.

By David Hickey, Vice President of Government Affairs at the International Sign Association. If you are tired of putting up with the status quo, he urges you to reach out to him at [email protected].