When Robert Godwin retired as a guard at Florida State Prison last year he didn’t waste any time starting a new career as the owner of a new pawn shop in downtown Macclenny. In December, he and his son opened Pawnderosa in a strip center on South 6th Street.
“I retired from the state prison system after 26 years,” Mr. Godwin said this week. “This is my first business endeavor.”
He and his son, Robert Godwin Jr., pooled their talents and money to buy the space formerly occupied by Wings Galore. After extensive renovation and remodeling they opened for business the day after Christmas.
Business was slow at first, but grew gradually and really began to pick up considerably after they hired two young women about two months ago to walk up and down the sidewalk out front holding up signs advertising the business, which is set back about 100 feet from the road.
“People come in here all the time and say, ‘We seen your sign girls out there and that’s why we came in here,’” Mr. Godwin Sr. said.
Human sign bearers have become a popular method of advertising for a number of businesses, including pawn shops, cell phone companies and restaurants. Their days appear to be numbered, however, as the Macclenny City Commission is moving forward with a plan to ban such advertising next month.
A public hearing has been scheduled for 6 pm on August 14 to vote on an amendment to the city’s sign code prohibiting “human signs.” The measure was given preliminary approval on July 10.Specifically, the prohibition would extend to persons carrying signs or dressed in costumes designed to attract attention for a commercial advertisement. Currently, signs carried by a person are permitted.
However, city officials have determined that such advertising should be banned because it could create a potential traffic hazard by possibly distracting drivers’ attention to such an extent that it creates a traffic hazard.
“It’s to keep people from being distracted and causing an accident,” Assistant City Manager Roger Yarborough said. “You can really notice the distraction.”
He said he has never personally been distracted enough by people holding advertising signs to get into an accident, nor known of any accidents directly caused by such activity. But he said “anything like that could cause a distraction and an accident.”
The proposed ordinance would affect “possibly four or five” local businesses that use human signs, Mr. Yarborough said. None have been notified by city hall about the upcoming prohibition, he said, because “that’s not normally something we do.”
Mr. Godwin Sr. said he heard about the proposed ban from some other business owners. He doesn’t like the idea.
“It’s really going to hurt my business and could even cause me to close my doors,” he said. “I really need those girls out there with my signs. My storefront sign just doesn’t get seen from the road.”
He said he pays the two young women, both 16-year-old students at Baker County High, minimum wage to work four hours a day several days a week. One works from 9 am to 1 pm and the other from 3 to 7 pm, and he said he gives them a 15-minute break each hour and plenty of time to come inside and drink water on hot days.
City officials say they’re just trying to eliminate a potential risk to traffic safety, not trying to hurt any businesses.
“The main objection is that it’s a traffic hazard when they’re out there twirling their signs,” City Attorney Frank Maloney said when the ordinance amendment was introduced two weeks ago.
City Councilman Vernon Bennett said he was driving down 6th Street recently when he noticed “a girl who probably couldn’t have been more than 14 years old trying to drag a sign in 98 degree heat.” He said the proposed prohibition would “probably save her life.”
Kayla Hancock, one of the two young women who carry the Pawnderosa signs, said she likes her job and needs it to continue to help with her own expenses, including a cell phone and her car, which she uses to get her and her sister to school and her to dual enrollment classes in nursing at Florida Gateway College in Lake City.
“It’s really hard to get a job now, especially when you’re so young and under 18,” she said. “If this is made illegal, I won’t be able to afford a car to get me and my sister to and from school.”
Robert Godwin Jr. said the city’s plan to ban the most effective advertising he and his father use would not only hurt local businesses, but “eliminate about 10 jobs.”
“The economy is already so bad that teenagers are having a hard time finding jobs,” he said.
Scott Lightsey said he has lived in Macclenny for years but only discovered Pawnderosa a month or so ago when he was driving by and “saw a young lady holding a sign.” He then noticed the storefront sign and went inside to look around.
“I’m a regular customer here, now,” he said. “They’re real good people and they’re honest. I really enjoy dealing with them.”
Mr. Godwin Sr. said he plans to attend the August 14 hearing to express his concerns and opposition to the proposed ban.
“Macclenny already has the tightest, most restrictive sign ordinance I’ve ever seen,” he said. “They make it difficult for small businesses. It seems unjust. I think there are some constitutional issues here.”
Diana Montgomery, who owns commercial property just outside the city limits on the east side of SR 228 at Interstate 10, said she, too, is opposed to the city’s proposed sign code change.
“My concern is if the city passes, will the county follow suit,” Mrs. Montgomery said.
She owns the property that housed Phantom Fireworks for years before Phantom built its own store across the street last year. Mrs. Montgomery began her own fireworks business earlier this year and stood outside waving at passing motorists to attract attention for the upcoming July 4th holiday.
“Mostly I was outside waving a noodle, you know those things that kids wear in a swimming pool,” she said.
Banning people from standing outside holding advertising signs, she said, “seems like it’s pretty unconstitutional.”
If the city is all that concerned about reducing distractions to motorists, Mr. Godwin and his son say, what about political candidates and all their supporters who wave campaign signs at passing motorists and weekend car washes featuring girls in shorts?