The Visalia Fox Theatre will soon greet downtown visitors with an animated electronic sign on its marquee – if the theater’s staff and key supporters have their way.
The proposed sign would increase Fox ticket sales by
advertising upcoming events. The use of LED lighting would dramatically lower the theater’s energy costs from its current sign lighting. The animated sign provides a way for the Fox to recognize its sponsors.
The electronic signs would replace the ones at the south and east sides of the building. So far, $78,500 has been raised toward the $90,000 proposed project, according to finishthefox.com.
Not everyone is happy about the idea, however. Concerns have been raised about the sign’s impact on downtown Visalia and on the dramatic changes to the city’s most recognizable historic landmark.
So far, the issue has only been brought to the city council informally in the form of comments made during a discussion about a comprehensive sign ordinance. Already there are strong opinions and emotions about the proposal.
“I think a lot of people in the city would like us becoming self-sufficient,” said Ryan Stillwater, house manager and talent buyer for the Visalia Fox. “Our overhead is $12,000 to $15,000 monthly and if we can recognize a sponsor, we want to be able to do that. Nobody wants their business card in a program anymore.
“It’s solely to recognize our sponsors,” he added. “And it’s only for our top sponsors.”
“It’s not for outside advertisement,” agreed Lance Martin, Fox box office manager. “It’s only a recognition for sponsors. It won’t be utilized for ‘Get your picture taken with Santa Claus at the mall.’”
Visalia Mayor Amy Shuklian is among those against the proposed sign.
“I don’t see why an old beautiful, historic building like the Fox would put up a video display on the building,” Shuklian said. “You’re driving downtown and here’s this flashing video display. It takes away from the quaintness of downtown.”
The Visalia Fox Theatre recently sent an application to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. The state has already approved the application so “it’s already there,” according to architectural historian Chris Brewer who researched, wrote and submitted the Visalia Fox application. Shuklian, who was on the city council when it supported the Fox Theatre’s application for the National Register of Historic Places, wonders how the proposed sign might affect its eligibility.
“Had I known before they wanted to do this I would have asked if it was OK,” she said diplomatically.
Michael Kreps, an architect who does work for the theater and is a main supporter of the electronic sign, said the sign would “add a lively ambiance to the downtown core.” He expressed his frustration that the mayor was unsupportive.
“I’m calling her ‘Mayor No’ because she’s told me no every time I’ve asked her,” said Kreps. “She does not want the historic nature of the Fox Theatre to be compromised by essentially new technology.”
“My main concern is to maintain the historic look of the Fox,” said Visalia Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen. “How does that fit with an electronic sign that flashes in front of it?”
He wonders how the proposed sign would affect the building’s historic designation and said that more due diligence was needed.
“Under the current sign ordinance there’s no provision for electronic signs,” he said.
“I have no particular problem with it as long as it’s done in good taste, and done in consistency with the architectural integrity of the Fox,” said Councilmember Greg Collins.
This consistency with architectural integrity is important in keeping the Fox Theatre on the historic register, according to Brewer, who explained that the sign would need to be “put up in a manner that does not detract from its original design. SHPO (the State Historic Preservation Office) would not look favorably on it if you removed the original fabric of the building.”
Brewer defined “fabric of the building” as any part of the building that is at least 50 years old, adding that any changes have to be consistent with the appearance of the building when it was approved for the historic register. The current marquee, although not the original marquee for the building, is the one that was included in the approved application.
He stressed the importance of doing everything correctly, especially if the Visalia Fox is looking to benefit from the tax rebates provided to historic buildings by the Mills Act. He advised those at the theater to work closely with SHPO and the state architect’s office.
“You’ll have to give them plans and tell them what it’s going to look like,” he said. “It’s not complicated, unless you make it that way, but it can be tedious.”
Brewer is strongly against allowing advertising messages from sponsors on the proposed sign, however.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” he said. “That would cheapen the aesthetic of the property and the community. They’re talking about putting up ‘a billboard.’ You don’t do that with a historic property.”
Currently, the city prohibits signs – other than temperature or time signs – that have any flashing or animation, or use light to display images, with limited exceptions.
“Last year, there was a zoning tax amendment initiated by city staff that had allowed electronic signs in specific locations in the city,” said Josh McDonnell, Visalia City Planner, who added that those places were schools, such as Central Valley Christian School and St. Paul School, which can only use their signs to promote school events and have “zero ads from vendors.”
The Fox sign proposal may become part of a comprehensive sign ordinance update, which the city council will deal with in the near future.
“We could have that as part of it,” McDonnell said. “There’s no certainty that electronic signs are going to be considered in a comprehensive sign update, but the direction is now that they will. The other option is to go it themselves.”
This second option includes submitting an application to the city requesting a zoning code amendment that would allow electronic signs for all businesses in its zone; in case of the Fox Theatre, the downtown area. Other steps include presenting the proposal to the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, the Visalia Planning Commission and the Visalia City Council. If necessary, there is a complex appeal process, according to McDonnell.
Those at the Visalia Fox aren’t happy about the fees charged to submit an application through this process.
“This is way out of line – paying $6,000 in fees,” said Kreps.
The application fees go to city staff to research the issue and provide analysis, pay for postage and newspaper advertising to notify everyone within a 300-foot radius of a proposed change, and to hold meetings about the issue, McDonnell explained.
“We lose money, quite frankly,” he added.
If the Fox is successful in its efforts, Stillwater doesn’t envision other electronic signs popping up in downtown Visalia. “I think a restaurant, boutique or salon would have a hard time raising the money to have a sign,” he said.
Stillwater wanted to make clear that the proposed sign would have no audio and would not run 24 hours a day. He also noted that the Fox Theatre in St. Louis has an electronic sign and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We can’t expect to operate in the same capacity as in the 1920s and survive,” Martin said. “Business has to adapt in order to survive.”