Signs of Tension: Stores Say Rules are Too Tough
Business owners fear current borough policies are making difficult times harder for the small business to survive.
Although there have been signs of encouragement in the struggling local economy, it is hard not to notice the empty stores and vacancy notices popping up along Main Street in Chester. As owners look for answers on how to keep their business alive, some say they have found an unlikely obstacle: the Borough government.
"People used to call Chester a destination town," said Charles Wasser, who has owned Once Upon a Table for nearly 15 years. “And it is not anymore. And most residents don’t know about us and what we have to offer. It is a struggle to survive.”
Wasser has had a long-standing contentious relationship with the Borough, as he could not get approval for his original business plans. “I originally was going to have catering and a large café with boxed goods but I couldn’t get the approval to expand the kitchen.”
While Wasser adapted, he says the problems didn’t end there. “I tried to make improvements to the front of the building, I tried to dress it up with fabric,” the owner said. “But because the company that was going to do the job had “awning” in its name, they wouldn’t allow me to do it.”
Wasser, whose primary business is furniture, also runs a cafe out of his building. Putting up a sign to promote the café and its offerings has gotten the wrong kind of attention from Chester Borough.
“Everyone wants the biggest sign for their business,” said Kerry Brown, the zoning officer for Chester Borough. “But there are regulations based on the store front. They regulate the number of signs, the size. These businesses are also in a historic district.”
According to Brown, the regulations of the planning board and board of adjustment are not new. “They have been around since time began,” Brown said. “And signs have always been an issue.”
But Arlyn Rayfield, who owns the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company, doesn’t agree with that assessment. “The size of the signs has changed. They made them smaller. Literally the size of the sign I am allowed to have up is half the size of my neighbors sign.”
Rayfield had ordered a wooden sign with a copper pot that was designed to be used in a historic district, but had to cancel it when she received the restrictions from Borough. “It is ridiculous. No one can see my sign. I put banners up to try to work around it, but I was just told I have to take them down as well.”
The situation has forced Rayfield to think outside the box to draw attention to her shop. “I am going to buy a big white flashing sign and hang it in the window so people can see it as they drive down the street in historic Chester,” Arlyn said. “I had that nice attractive sign on order, but I will have to go with this one on the inside and leave the shades open.”
For her part, Arlyn doesn’t see the move as spiteful, but necessary for her business to thrive. “People don’t know I am here,” the chocolatier said. “People drive up and down the street and call me on their cell phones asking where I am because they can’t see the sign.”
For Wasser, having a sign promoting his café isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity. “Businesses are dying. They are dying right here in Chester and the government is getting in the way of us trying to help ourselves. People don’t know about our café unless I put a sign up.”
The policy is uniform, although sometimes there is a lag in enforcement. “There are rules for what is allowed and everyone tries to see what they can put up. They see someone else do it and then they do it,” Brown said. “And then everyone kind of gets caught.”
Getting caught entails a warning, and eventually, a fine. The latter might be the last straw for Once Upon a Table. “I am going to move this business to Bernardsville if I can,” Wasser said. “I get plenty of offers from places to rent this place. There was a consignment shop from Newark that wanted to rent it to be run by troubled teens. I might have to take them up on that offer.”
Wasser is convinced he will not be the only one forced out if this continues. “This is going to become the consignment capital of the world,” Wasser said. “You are going to be faced with a Chester without a Main Street.”