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Merchants get the sign 

click to enlarge Signing off: Leon Gonzales of Ye Sen's Cafe - SCOTT LARRICK

A group of Austin Bluffs retailers are locked in a bitter spat with the owner of their shopping center, because, they say, the landlord is forcing them to buy new, expensive signs as part of a shopping center facelift.

A manager with the landlord, Austin Bluffs, LLC, said his company is not forcing the tenants to do anything and has even offered to put up the tenants' old signs at no cost.

But several tenants at the Austin Bluffs Shopping Center say they've been given a different story. They say the company managing the property -- Sullivan-Hayes Brokerage Corp. -- has told tenants they must choose between several different new signs.

They said the landlord offered to reinstall the tenants' previous signs, but with no internal lighting. Nearly all the businesses in the center previously had back-lit signs before remodeling began.

The real problem, the retailers say, is money. Most of the tenants are small businesses who say they can't afford the pricey, back-lit signs, which would cost roughly $300 per letter.

"I'm an independent business, so to kick out $2,000 for one sign is quite a chunk," said Andrea Colburn, the owner of Fashion Eye Optical, one of roughly 30 tenants in the complex.

"Plus, with me on the corner, I need to get two signs. So I need to come up with $4,000 to $5,000 in order to work with them."

The landlord first proposed paying for the signs, then having the retailers pay back the landlord at 11 percent interest. Last week, after considerable protest from retailers, the landlord offered some tenants two-and-a-half-year, zero-interest loans to pay for the signs.

But some tenants say they're still not happy with the offer, especially since most tenants already had functional, back-lit signs prior to the renovation.

Austin Bluffs, LLC, now says they've offered to reinstall the old signs, but tenants interviewed for this story were unaware of the offer.

"They said we could put up the old signs, but they wouldn't be lit," said Randy Harrell, owner of A Mobile Locksmith. Harrell said he knew of no offer to install and light the old signs.

The new policy imposes another $100-a-month payment onto most businesses, already hard hit by escalating overhead, said Harrell, noting that the tenants' leases say nothing about purchasing new signs.

"They changed the sign code [for the shopping center] in the middle of the lease," said Harrell. "For me, we're looking at about $3,000 expense to add a new sign."

But a manager for the company that owns the shopping center, Meyer Saltzman, dismissed the retailers' complaints as overblown.

"We spent $300,000 to modernize the facility to increase the business," said Saltzman. "When we did that, we did not go back to the tenants and ask them to rewrite the lease to pay for the improvements."

"So it's a win-win situation, because we improve the property and also because the modernization will help the businesses by giving them more visibility," Saltzman added.

Chris Barnett, who manages the property for Sullivan-Hayes, agreed. "I've been managing shopping centers for 25 years, and I've never seen a landlord redo and fix up a shopping center at solely the landlord's expense," Barnett said. "The reason for new signs is that the old sings were unreadable some were bright, some were dim."

Barnett said that retailers have been given a choice between three competing bids from sign companies and that out of 30 tenants, only six refused to get the new signs. "Out of all the tenants," Saltzman added, "there are only two or three tenants that are objecting."

Retailers interviewed for this story rejected some of those claims, however, saying that many tenants are going along with the new sign,s only because they've been told they have no choice.

Further, some said they were told they had to buy one particular brand of sign.

To some of the center's tenants, the sign issue is the straw that broke the tenants' backs. The sign expense comes after a significant slowdown in business during construction, and after store visibility has been hampered by chronic problems with nighttime lighting in some areas of the parking lot.

"I've got no sign, no parking, no lights; at night, this place is completely dark," said Leon Gonzales, the co-owner of Ye Sen's Caf, a popular restaurant that serves food until 9 p.m.

"I'm taking a really hard hit, and now they want me to buy a new sign for $2,000?" said Gonzales, who wants the landlords to pay for the new signs.

As for other retailers, Harrell said he'll begrudgingly go along with the new signs, but Cornell said she's not so sure. One thing they both know, however, is that if they do go with new signs, they'll have to shorten the names of their businesses to cut down on the new signs' cost.

Harrell's A Mobile Locksmith would be shortened to say simply "Locksmith," while Colburn said her new sign would simply read "Optical."

-- Malcolm Howard

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