‘Wendy the Windsock’ becomes unlikely small business heroine, media star

One local shopkeeper is fighting for his right to promote his business how he sees fit, and in the process he’s hoping to open up a dialogue about what he sees as overzealous enforcement of Madison’s sign-control ordinance.

The ordinance [PDF] includes restrictions on “attention-getting objects” that spin, fly, or flap in the wind, and the trademark windsock on the roof of Cargo Coffee on Park Street appears to fit that description.

And boy, has it ever gotten attention.

So far, “Wendy the Windsock” has received ink and airtime from The Capital Times, WISC Channel 3, WMSN Fox 47, The Badger Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the website of WKRC in Cincinnati (as God is their witness, they thought a story about a nondescript orange windsock on a Madison coffee shop would fly).

In addition, Wendy has her own Facebook page, which as of this writing has a more-than-respectable 579 likes.

And if Wendy herself is to be believed, the story is on the verge of going viral, with additional coverage in Reno, Nev.; Washington, D.C.; Rockford, Ill.; and Columbus, Ohio.

So what to make of this flap? Is it much ado about nothing or one local, independent shopkeeper’s heroic fight against bureaucratic overreach?

In a city like Madison, nurtured for decades on anti-establishment fervor but sometimes seen by folks in the business community as hidebound and a bit too in love with its rules and regulations, the answer — to paraphrase the anthem of another time — may truly be blowing in the wind.

The controversy began after an anonymous party complained to the city about a Dane Buy Local sign Cargo Coffee owner Lindsey Lee had hung on his building. The sign passed muster, but the city inspector who had been sent to investigate the complaint flagged the windsock as a violation of the city’s signage ordinance.

That left Lee with a choice: appeal the ruling to the city’s Urban Design Commission or remove the windsock, which has flown over the shop since Lee opened it 13 years ago.

Channeling City Hall-fighting rabble-rousers everywhere (and perhaps P.T. Barnum), Lee took a third tack: appeal the ruling and make a ton of noise in the process.

He’s scheduled to face the Urban Design Commission in about two weeks, but in the meantime, he’s taking advantage of the city’s reaction to his humble windsock.

“I’m all for getting as much bang out of the buck as you can, so this has worked out for me just fine,” said Lee.

Lee acknowledges that his crusade against the town’s sign police is a bit tongue-in-cheek — noting that it’s been a real morale-booster for his employees, a boon for his business, and fun for his kids, who help him post updates on Facebook — but he’s also trying to make a larger point about the city’s relationship with small businesses.

Lee is particularly critical of Mayor Paul Soglin, who Lee says has made too much of relatively unimportant issues like local business’s signage.

“Unlike previous mayors, [Soglin] has made signage a big issue of his administration,” said Lee. “I believe for small, local, independent retailers, signage is important, and we should keep that in mind. And if we desire to have small, local, independent retailers, we should know what their concerns are and make sure we’re not preventing them from being successful.”

Lee, who has been active with Dane Buy Local since its founding in 2004, acknowledges that the ordinance is in place for a reason but says there should be a bit more wiggle room when it comes to enforcement.

“You’re supposed to stop at a stop sign if you’re riding a bike, but I think reasonable people know that we shouldn’t be putting a lot of resources into enforcing that everywhere, maybe just in certain areas,” said Lee. “So I think, once again, compared to four years ago, there has been a change in City Hall wanting to, I think, over-enforce the ordinance.”

Lee is also taking the opportunity to open up a broader dialogue about the city’s relationship with small businesses, particularly with respect to the city’s future.

“I’ve been talking to people and thinking about this: We’re building all these mixed-use buildings, and it’s great — I support most of them,” said Lee. “I’m very much a high-density [supporter], but we’re creating all this retail space and the city really has not made it part of the discussion and planning what we can do to encourage local, independent retailers. And that will really help shape what Madison looks and feels like for the next several decades.

“There are things that we can do as a city to encourage that, and if we don’t, no matter how great a building looks, having it filled with Subways and Taco Bells after all that effort, we might end up with something that won’t keep us being the city that gets all these awards for being livable.”

To Madison zoning administrator Matt Tucker, the tale of Windy the Windsock is really just a lot of sound and fury, signifying very little.

He notes that the city is simply doing its due diligence, that the mayor is “not involved at all,” and that Cargo’s appeal before the Urban Design Commission is very likely to come out in Lee’s favor.

(Continued)

 

“Basically, this is a much simpler situation than I think it’s being made out to be,” said Tucker. “We have these regulations and rules and they’re fairly basic, and we’re doing our job to enforce them consistently across the city. We’ve issued a fair number of orders to people to take down or remove signage that doesn’t comply or to obtain approvals in some cases where it’s appropriate, and that’s exactly what’s going on here.”

Tucker notes that since the windsock appears to fit Cargo’s aeronautical theme, it’s likely to win approval. He also said that this is a pretty typical case that just happens to have caught the public’s attention. “We’re treating this as we would any other situation,” said Tucker. “We just have a very squeaky wheel here.”

Furthermore, he says, the ordinance comes down to a decision about how Madison wants to portray itself, and the city is simply enforcing its rules appropriately to ensure compliance.

“Some people might say that signage, any signage, shouldn’t be regulated, and other folks might say we wouldn’t want to be extreme like Las Vegas or, to take a local example, the Dells,” said Tucker. “People go to the Dells and say you’ve got sign clutter, you have an explosion of visual intensity of signage. … Now, the Dells has decided that that’s what they want for their area. But the City of Madison has decided otherwise.”

Meanwhile, Lee appears to be doing all he can to wring every last drop of publicity he can out of the situation. On Saturday, Oct. 11, Cargo hosted a “Windstock Music and Art Fair” at which Wendy (actually, a Cargo employee dressed as a giant windsock) made an appearance.

As for Wendy’s ultimate fate? It’s looking fairly certain that after all this blows over, she will continue to fly proudly over Park Street.

“I have no doubt, especially after all this publicity, I will get my way,” said Lee.

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