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Downtown displays scrutinized

Gilly's night club in downtown Grand Forks makes pretty good use of its window displays, covering each with big, colorful graphics promoting weekday specials: Sumo wrestling on Tuesdays, ladies' night on Thursday.

Gilly's
(John Stennes, Grand Forks Herald)

Gilly's night club in downtown Grand Forks makes pretty good use of its window displays, covering each with big, colorful graphics promoting weekday specials: Sumo wrestling on Tuesdays, ladies' night on Thursday.

Down the street, Romantix, the erotica emporium, fills its windows with candles, bottles of lotion and mannequins in exotic underwear.

Sledsters bar nearby features silhouettes of curvy women in the window, one wearing thigh-high boots known colloquially as "hooker boots."

Is there anything objectionable about these window displays?

Anywhere else in the city, they wouldn't be all that out of the ordinary, but this is the historic downtown district and the rules literally are different here.

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Now, there are some rumbling from City Hall regarding possibly garish window displays. The names of the above three have come up.

At the request of some City Council members, the city's Downtown Design Review Board is studying regulations on window signage. In a letter sent to downtown businesses last week, the board announced a meeting to "generate discussion" about the regulations.

"There are a lot of different opinions expressed over the course of time, some not liking some of the signage and what you can do about it," board Chairman Doug Herzog said. "I think they're going to review the guidelines."

He was mum, though, about what those opinions were and who issued them. "I don't want to give my opinion. It'll be taken out of context."

Asked what he was worried about, he abruptly said, "I don't want to talk about it anymore."

The whys of regs

So what right does the city have telling businesses what they can or can't put in their windows?

The Downtown Design Review Board emerged out of the city's flood recovery process, which saw a lot of aid dollars pumped into the heavily damaged downtown district.

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The board's goal is to preserve the historic appearance of the buildings using a set of rules that generally spell out what buildings should look like -- from architectural details all the way to signs. Main corridors of special concern for the board are DeMers Avenue, Kittson Avenue, South Third Street, South Fourth Street and South Fifth Street.

Without any regulations, businesses have a tendency to enter a war of signs to see who has the biggest and most eye-catching displays, City Planner Brad Gengler said. At worst, we're talking about distracted drivers and, at best, an ugly cityscape.

Since the board has already banned illuminated box signs and flashing displays -- the rules go so far as to ban "garish colors" -- it appears it's the latter that's the concern at this point.

Gengler said he has heard concerns about the aesthetics of window signage at some businesses downtown. But, he said, it'd be tough to write laws banning displays that some think are too "provocative."

The trick is to do it in such a way that doesn't open the city up to First Amendment lawsuits, as other cities have seen, Gengler said. "Legislating signage in general is a difficult process for cities to go through."

He said the city uses as models a mix of federal guidelines and rules that other cities have had experience with.

Vague rules

Marsha Gunderson, a member of the downtown board, said she's not looking at window signage rules as an aesthetic issue or even one of obscenity, despite some city leaders' concern about Romantix.

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She said she's looking at it as an issue of consistency and clarity because the rules are very clear about signs on the exterior of buildings, but very vague about signs in windows, which are interior.

The main concern for window signage is the same as for exterior signage, she said, which is how much promotion are businesses allowed to do?

In other words, are they too big or too distracting?

Romantix Manager Cody O'Hara said he received the city's letter, but hasn't been told if the city has a problem with his window display.

"I think they're in good taste. No nudity. It's all very PG. Nothing different than what you'd see at the mall," he said. "If it's acceptable for Victoria's Secret to do it, then I don't see why we can't do it either."

Being next to a chocolate shop, he acknowledged that there are a lot of high school students walking by, but he said they'd have to do that at the mall, too.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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