Lakeland considers banning 'human signs'

No more costumed characters and billboard toting

LAKELAND, Fla. - On an oppressively hot and sunny July day in Florida, there may be nothing better than an ice cream cone.  Unless, that is, you actually are an ice cream cone.

A six-foot tall, four-foot wide, walking and waving Froyoz soft serve.  

"It's great extra money," said Charles Colwell, the invisible man inside the costume.   

It's a job that drivers passing the scorching sidewalk along U.S. Highway 98 in Lakeland might think is the worst in the world.  Or, at least, the Florida equivalent of selling firewood in your underwear on a Minneapolis street corner in January.

Not true, Colwell contended.  "I have a fan," he said.  "And I listen to the radio."  

Colwell works in construction, so he's used to the heat.  And while you can't see him inside the swirl of the yogurt, you can see the sweat drenching his red costume pants.  

"I was brought up with strong work ethics.  You have a job, and you go out and do it," Colwell said.  

His job is to attract customers into the Froyoz franchise, located in the Shoppes of Lakeland plaza north of I-4.  And he does.

"It makes a huge difference," said Nikki Rutledge, a Froyoz employee.  "People walking by or driving their cars look over and are like, 'Oh, what is that?'" Rutledge said.  

Business has increased since the store started using the human sign several weeks ago, the manager said.

But the city of Lakeland is considering putting costumed characters like the Froyoz yogurt man on ice, if a new ordinance is approved.

Lakeland officials said part of the reason is driver safety, as motorists might get distracted with walking advertisements.  The main reason is aesthetics.  

"It doesn't look good," said Kevin Cook, Lakeland's communications director.

The ordinance would affect not only human signs, but people carrying billboards or props along the side of busy roads.

Violators could face a $100 fine.

For Donna Monk, it would mean losing her $10 an hour job of holding up a sign for America's Mattress, an independently owned business nestled between large chain stores like Best Buy.

"I need the job to pay the bills," Monk said.  Her husband has been delivering mattresses for the company for 14 years, while she has spent the last four helping with the advertising.

"It's not fair," Monk said about the proposed change.

The store's owner, Cindy Castle, is especially upset with Lakeland city commissioner Philip Walker, who was quoted saying he thought some of the walking signs were becoming distasteful.

"How dare he say something like that," Castle said.  "With taxes we pay his salary and yet he finds our labor distasteful?  I mean, there's a lot of audacity in that," Castle said.

She's considering speaking her mind to city commissioners.  Castle said the ordinance would heavily favor corporate owned businesses that can afford more traditional advertising like billboards, TV, and radio.  

The first hearing on the rule change is scheduled for July 16 at Lakeland city hall.

As for Colwell, he said he has no plans to give up his day job any time soon.  His co-workers have offered to let him stay inside the store in the air conditioning whenever he wants.  He tells them he would rather be outside.

"This isn't hot," said Colwell, as a bank thermometer flashed 92 degrees.

"It's just sweaty."

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