Rockport Selectman Paul Murphy makes a valid point when he notes that town fines for downtown business violators of the outdoor display bylaw amounts to nothing more than a proverbial slap on the wrist.
Extending a warning for a first “offense,” then a $25 fine for a second offense and $50 for a third hardly deters business owners from displaying their goods outside, and no doubt doesn’t drive any of them to get the required permits to display up to three items outside their shops, particularly on Bearskin Neck.
Murphy’s probably right in noting that proposed steeper fines — of $100 a day for a second offense, $125 for a third, and $150 for any beyond that would certainly get business owners’ attention.
But the proposed hike in the fines — which would, no doubt, cripple some businesses — doesn’t address an even bigger problem. And that’s the rules set forth by the bylaw in the first place.
Targeted primarily at the high-volume summer Bearskin Neck and downtown tourism season — and, yes, the busy holiday season as well — the bylaw limits any business owner or operator to displaying no more than three items outside his or her shop. And those are allowed by permit only, and must be attached to property owned or leased by the shopkeepers .
The idea is to keep the businesses neat and tidy. But that goal, of course, assumes that any and all outdoor signs or displays of merchandise means clutter — and that’s far from the case.
The truth is, displaying merchandise outside one’s shop is a perfectly legitimate means of showing passers-by what’s available inside, and that’s an effective means of drawing customers through the door. Indeed, Luce Corona of Gloucester, who owns Artesano’s on Bearskin Neck, says her outdoor displays not only make a difference for her business, but that her sales drop by about 26 percent when merchandise is forced back indoors. She said she’d be hard-pressed to cover the increased fines if the new scale becomes reality.
Is that what Rockport selectmen and other officials want? To literally regulate shopkeepers right out of business?
Look, some outdoor displays can become cluttered; but those that do aren’t exactly attractive to consumers, either. When it comes to local business regulation, it should not be up to selectmen to try to regulate taste.
Simply put, town officials are right to rein in any outdoor displays that might, for example, impede auto or pedestrian traffic along Bearskin Neck, or raise any other safety concerns on the Neck or elsewhere downtown. But there comes a fine line at which regulating businesses can cross between dealing with valid safety concerns and simply harassing businesses and discouraging local commerce.
Rockport’s outdoor display bylaw has already crossed that line; cracking down with steeper enforcement and stiffer fines only makes it worse — and may wrongly push some businesses to the point of no return. That should not be any town official’s goal.