By Dan Harkins
ORANGE CITY - Business was slow seven years ago at Millie's Gold Mine on U.S. 17/92 near French Avenue. So Millie Merlin and her late husband, Dan, decided to get noticed.
They hired a temporary worker, dressed him in a pimp costume from a Halloween shop and posted him out front with a big arrow pointing at their storefront. Pretty soon, customers started to roll right in again. Today, Ms. Merlin attests that business is just fine, allowing her to branch out into fine jewelry sales and repair.
"He's a landmark now," she said about the now-iconic pimp character in front of her store. "When people don't see him, they start calling thinking we're closed or not here anymore."
Ms. Merlin believes her business was the first to have a human sign in front of it in Orange City.
Then a MetroPCS dealer moved downtown a few years back, she said, and posted four sign-holders on each corner of 17/92 and Graves Avenue.
"They were blocking the crosswalks and getting too much attention," she said. "That's what started all this trouble."
Today, signs litter 17/92, from DeLand all the way to DeBary and on through Orlando. They're signs of the times. But city leaders here and elsewhere are trying to keep them at bay.
In February, the Orange City Council told its staff to craft an amendment to the city sign code that limited where and how human signs can operate. They suggested they be kept off the city-owned rights-of-way, away from crosswalks and only operated seasonally - just four times a year, no longer than 30 days at a time and with a full month between each appearance.
In April, the city's Planning Commission recommended the changes, but staff met with them in July to ask for a year moratorium on making the changes and enforcing them.
"By the city not enforcing human sign regulations," wrote city planner Jim Kerr in a memo to council members, "it gives the appearance the city is condoning such activity," which staff maintains is "distracting to motorists and visually unappealing."
Giving business owners and their human signs a year reprieve, he wrote, will give "regulatory relief for the business community" while staff devises a comprehensive sign code to be unveiled in about a year.
Restricting human signs hasn't been put on the back burner, said Mayor Tom Laputka. It's more like business owners are being given a year to prepare for new regulations to come in about a year, when the city hopes to have a new community redevelopment agency up and running for its battered U.S. 17/92 commercial corridor.
"All we said was we're going to put this on hold for a bit," Mayor Laputka said. "But we can rescind that at any time."
In the meantime, he said, it appears the city's human sign activity is at "a respectable, manageable level."
Outside Millie's Gold Mine, 22-year-old Eric Clopton holds down the fort at his first stable job, wearing the uniform with as much pride as he can muster.
A dirty film tatters the lapels of his pimp suit, but he said the floppy hat and sunglasses help to shield his face from the sun.
It's a living.
"I'd rather be wearing this than a full-body pig suit," he said, referring to the costume for an area barbecue joint. "This is nothing compared to that."
He thinks city leaders should consider his job prospects before deciding what to do next.
"It would be pretty stupid" to do away with the job, he said, "because unemployment is high in Florida. It's been over 9 percent for over 40 weeks now. Who else is going to hire me?"