By Ashley Luthern
If people look twice when they see a 5-foot-tall dog waving near U.S. Route 224, that’s the point, says the business owner who sponsors it.
Harbor Pet Center, located in the plaza on the southwest corner of U.S. Route 224 and Market Street, began sending its dog mascot out along sidewalks near the business about two years ago.
The township zoning department, however, is trying to put a halt on it — with concerns over safety growing after a fatal accident at the intersection last month.
Township zoning ordinance states that signs shall be placed no closer than 25 feet from all other property lines, and businesses must apply for sign permits to be placed on their buildings or property, said zoning inspector Anna Mamone. Temporary signs are prohibited.
Mamone said the township is monitoring a couple of businesses that use employees to hold signs outside, but for the most part, it is not a problem for her department.
“If [it’s] on [private] property, then there’s nothing we can say,” Mamone said.
Gary Winslow, owner of Harbor Pet Center, said the store’s mascot isn’t effective near the plaza storefront, which sits back from Market Street behind Jimmy John’s and Five Guys restaurants.
“We literally get comments from probably three or four customers daily about, ‘Gee, we didn’t know you were here. We didn’t realize you had puppies,’ indicating to us that since we’re sitting so far back off the road, they had no idea we were here,” Winslow said.
He said the mascot is no longer supposed to be on the corner of U.S. Route 224 and Market Street.
“We stopped putting him out on the corner because the township insisted, but quite honestly, it’s had a detrimental effect,” Winslow said.
Justin Chesnic, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation District 4, which includes Mahoning County, said mascots or people with signs are permitted on the sidewalk along a state route, such as Market Street (state Route 7) and Route 224.
“They are not allowed in the highway and also ... they are walking and carrying signs because we don’t allow [permanent] signs in our right of way or sidewalks,” Chesnic said.
A mascot or person with a sign is not permitted in construction zones unless a sidewalk has remained open, he said.
The corner of Market Street and Route 224 has been a construction zone for months as a right turning lane was added to the eastbound part of Route 224, in front of Men’s Warehouse. Chesnic said that project is undergoing its final inspection this week.
Mamone said her office received several calls about the mascot in the days after the death of Paul Macejko. Macejko, 56, was killed Sept. 3 when a car hit him while he was clearing glass from Route 224 just east of state Route 7. Macejko had responded with a tow truck to an earlier accident there.
At other businesses, sign-toting employees are not common, Mamone said.
“It might happen once in a while for a sale, and it’s over and done with quickly. [Harbor Pet Center] is continuous and we’re getting calls,” she said.
The mascot advertising the pet company also stands in front of other businesses, which have taken out their own sign permits, she said.
But Winslow argues the township is hurting business instead of protecting it.
“It seems to be anti-business to not give me the opportunity to be seen and bring in customers. ... It’s helped my business, and I would really hate to give it up,” he said.
Mamone maintains the township is not anti-business.
“Actually the No. 1 concern is ... the safety of the employees,” she said. “They’re out on the busy roads in those costumes when it’s 95 degrees or zero degrees and traffic coming by, and visibility is not that great in those costumes with the headdress.”
Winslow said he makes sure the five teenage employees who wear the dog costume are safe, and he wants to keep them at work.
“We really had a big drop-off in traffic. We’re at the point where I’m going to have to lay five guys off who wear the suit if we’re not getting the sales,” he said.
Sgt. John Allsopp, Boardman’s traffic unit supervisor, said police officers have been asked to contact zoning if they see the dog mascot. Allsopp said the police department treats the mascot similar to people who form picket lines.
“As long as they’re not obstructing or delaying traffic or blocking sidewalks or soliciting in roadways,” they are not in violation of state traffic laws, he said.