The subject of formula (chain) stores was a topic of interest among Gulfport residents, city staff and businesses recently. Like many cities throughout Florida and the U.S., initiatives to limit or regulate formula/chain stores have been introduced as a means to preserve a city’s distinctive and small town community character, historical features or protecting small local businesses. In contrast, formula (chain) stores exist in large mass, typically maintaining standardized features and layout requirements (e.g., design, architecture, décor, merchandise, menus, large parking areas, and signage). Some speculate that formula stores may negatively impact independent businesses.
It is important to note that formula (chain) stores can be attractive in some communities, especially when they encourage development in depressed areas, fuel economic growth, increase a municipality’s tax base and complement local businesses. This is often the case in larger cities.
We must realize that Gulfport may continue to attract formula (chain) stores wanting to make our city their home. Since they cannot be prohibited or banned outright (backed by court rulings on this matter), cities can indeed carefully consider a variety of legal ways they can be restricted within city limits. This ensures minimal impact to small municipalities like Gulfport, while still adding to the diversity of businesses and meeting resident needs. Today, we have no ordinance or guidelines specifially addressing formula (chain) stores in Gulfport.
My goal at this point is to encourage discussions and sharing of opinions if indeed we want to entertain any sort of legal controls to limit expansion of formula/chain stores within Gulfport city limits. Accordingly, to better understand some of the formula (chain) store municipal ordinances already adopted and in effect, I have summarized a few of them below. They may or may not be appropriate for Gulfport. However, it does provide us a good starting point for dialog.
First and foremost, it is importanet to get a very clear definition of what exactly is meant by “formula/chain stores.” One city added to their ordinance the following definition: “businesses that adopt standardized services, methods of operation, decor, uniforms, architecture, or other features virtually identical to businesses elsewhere.” Other attributes may include signage, building façade, and logos.
Some cities are preserving their unique identity through the use of planning and zoning codes specific to formula (chain) stores. It does make sense to center any discussions to limit or regulate these stores within the authority of Planning and Zoning Boards (they are already charged with regulating local land uses). In fact, some cities have adopted conditional use approval requirement, as well as specific “formula/chain use permits” for these type of stores. The “permits” detail the building’s look and design. A formula (chain) store zoning ordinance can also regulate or restrict the height, number of stories, the size of buildings, the percentage of lots that may be occupied, their location and their specific use.
Another action is capping the number or percent of formula (chain) stores permitted within city limits, or within certain commercial zoning areas. One city ordinance I read caps formula stores at 10 percent of the total number of “like businesses” in that city. Another city, prohibits formula stores larger than 2,500 square feet from its downtown area.
Some ordinances will not permit the chain stores in designated landmark districts or waterfront areas. If they are permitted, ordinances may require formula (chain) store buildings to adhere to strict architectural and exterior designs, complementing the surrounding area. Some formula (chain) stores may not be able to comply with such regulations since they often must adhere to their own cookie-cutter franchise architectural design. In essence, these “Franchise Architecture Ordinances” do not ban formula (chain) stores, they simply prevent what is called “stock building plans,” thus protecting "local streetscape identities." This type of ordinance requires a city to develop commercial business design standards.
When some cities have been faced with the proliferation of formula (chain) stores, they have implemented temporary moratoriums on these businesses within their city limits. However, they cannot legally ban them or prevent them in areas appropriately designated and zoned for such businesses. Other ordinances have adopted a sunset clause with their formula (chain) ordinance. The ordinance simply expires at the time that the city has developed detailed design guidelines for these businesses.
Perhaps the most important area for full consideration and decision-making are the legal challenges that have and can continue to be a factor as municipalities look to limit formula (chain) stores. Some chain stores have filed discrimination claims against municipalities. Others have had court rulings calling some ordinances potentially unconstitutional or violating trade and commerce laws. Since courts have ruled against some of the efforts to restrict formula/chain stores, if Gulfport were to pursue any sort of chain store limitations, we will need to study very closely the adopted ordinances that have not been subject to violating the rights of these businesses. This will take time and a thorough analysis.
I look forward to introducing this discussion at a Gulfport City Council meeting. First and foremost we must understand the legality of such ordinances, scrutinizing where successful ordinances have been adopted, and ultimately decide if this is something that Gulfport does or doesn’t want to consider. It is only a discussion at this time. However, I look forward to your comments and thoughts, ideas, recommendations, opinions, etc. We do have to be careful we do not shun new businesses from Gulfport. However, we must also make sure that we have checks and balances in place that preserves our small town identity and character.