It’s not hard to spot the signs.
Anywhere you go around town at night, from the smallest of mom-and-pops to the biggest of banks, words on lit business signs are disjointed or truncated by burned-out letters. To some, it seems to have reached new levels of alphabetical disregard.
"Gainesville is beginning to look like one of the most run-down towns," said Betty Brothers, owner of Shiloh Signs.
Brothers did not approach The Times for this article; the newspaper contacted her. She said she has enough business without pointing out how many store owners aren’t promptly repairing their signs.
But the lack of maintenance around town irks Brothers, who has been in the sign business for 10 years and says it has never been worse.
"This is such a sore spot with me, and not because I’m in the business — it just looks so bad," she said.
Signs with three-dimensional letters backlit by fluorescent or neon lighting are known in the industry as "channel letter" signs. Brothers said these signs often are run by complex electrical wiring and fixing them isn’t as simple as screwing in a new bulb. Some repairs, especially those requiring a bucket truck, can be expensive. Still, many average repairs would run a few hundred dollars.
The managers of each of the businesses photographed last week by The Times said they were in the process of having their signs fixed. A manager for Advance Auto Parts said a repair request was submitted to the corporate offices two months ago.
Maya Patel, owner of the Texaco station on Ga. 53, said he was unaware his sign had dimmed letters because he isn’t at the store at night. He will have it fixed by his regular sign maintenance contractor immediately, Patel said.
The prevalence of burned-out signs raises the obvious question: Is the economy to blame? Is routine maintenance being deferred more often these days because of tight business budgets?
David Hickey, a spokesman for the International Sign Association, doesn’t think so.
A widespread lack of channel letter sign maintenance isn’t an issue his organization has heard much about in the recession economy, he said.
"I have heard that often burned-out lights aren’t changed right away because their owners think that somehow they’ll be saving on energy costs," Hickey said. "But these cost savings are negligible, and if a darkened sign means that a customer doesn’t drop by, that is a much greater loss to the business."
Brothers theorized that many signs that were new during the growth and development boom are now requiring maintenance as they get older. Some signs aren’t being repaired because the businesses are going under, she added.
Brothers noted that many mall and shopping center owners require their tenants to keep all letters lit, but there are no such county or city ordinances.
Rusty Ligon, Gainesville’s community development director, said there are codes addressing sign maintenance. Business owners must make repairs when letters have become detached or have fallen off, paint has peeled or flaked off, or bricks or stones have become misaligned or detached, Ligon said.
The code does not specifically require channel letter signs to be fully lit.
"Typically we respond to these types of issues on a complaint basis," Ligon said. "We would check out the sign to be sure there was no safety issue, first and foremost. If there was a public safety issue, then we would have the property owner immediately address it. If not, we would bring it to the owner’s attention and encourage them to replace the burned-out bulbs."
Partially lit signs send the wrong message, Brothers said.
"It really says a lot about your business, and the community," she said.