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Photo Courtesy of DCL (Fabricator), Design by Poulin+Morris
Photo Courtesy of DCL (Fabricator), Design by Poulin+Morris

Opportunities for Progress in Chicago

Posted: 05/30/2019

Chicago is unlike any city in the United States, especially when it comes to getting signs permitted. For years, the "Chicago Way" has made it very difficult for companies in the sign, graphics and visual communications industry to get their customers the signs they need and deserve.

That's why the International Sign Association, the Illinois Sign Association, the Small Business Advocacy Council (SBAC) and local chambers of commerce formed a coalition in 2016 to improve the ability of small businesses to display signs in our nation's third-largest city.

After achieving some incremental successes at first, the coalition facilitated the first-ever "Chicago Sign Summit" in June 2018, where dozens of Chicago-area sign companies joined together to generate ideas to make the Windy City a better place for the sign, graphics and visual communications industry to succeed. Together, we identified several key areas of Chicago's sign code and how it is administered that needed to be updated and streamlined. Elliot Richardson with the SBAC noted that "bringing Chicago's sign code into the 21st century will benefit end users, sign companies and other stakeholders in the city."

When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel unexpectedly announced in September 2018 that he would not seek a third term, the coalition immediately decided to make the 2019 mayoral election about the city's sign code. After all, what candidate wouldn't support improving the sign code so that Chicago's small businesses would have a better chance to succeed?

The coalition held a Mayoral Forum in January 2019 in which seven candidates participated and answered questions about various small business issues, including the administration of the city's sign code. Following the mayoral forum, the SBAC sent out a survey to all the mayoral candidates which asked just one question – "Will you introduce and support an ordinance that eliminates the requirement that public way use permits be submitted to and approved by the full City Council?" The forum and survey question helped the local small business community and the coalition determine which candidate would best support reasonable sign regulatory reform in Chicago.

That candidate was Lori Lightfoot, who during the campaign publicly committed herself to reforming the process for getting a sign approved in Chicago. Lightfoot trounced her opponent during the runoff election and assumed office as Mayor of Chicago on May 20, 2019. Mayor Lightfoot has already taken an important step towards improving sign codes by signing Executive Order 2019-2, which aims to eliminate aldermanic prerogative. The goal of this Executive Order is to put an end to an alderman's ability to unilaterally approve, affirm, block, or veto a departmental decision on administrative items, which affects signs.

Prior to her inauguration, SBAC's Richardson was appointed to Mayor-elect Lightfoot's Good Governance Transition Committee. In that capacity, the SBAC submitted a memo advocating for eliminating the requirement that public way use permits for simple signs be approved by the Chicago City Council (less than 12 inches/non-electronic signs) and be automatically renewed every five years for signs that are not changed. In a broader sense, the SBAC argued that there is no reason for City Council to spend time dealing with administrative functions and for the removal of politics from the process of approving things such as public way permits for simple signs.

ISA looks forward to advocating for changes in the sign code and administrative processes that will greatly improve the process for displaying a sign in Chicago and more communities throughout North America.

If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to ISA's David Hickey.