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Trying to Keep the Lights on for Our Economy

The economic health of America’s franchise businesses depends a great deal on effective branding and advertising. This includes being able to market goods and services at night, when many people do their shopping. A recent study shows that nearly 20 percent of consumers are economically active between the hours of 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. To stand out and be seen when it’s dark outside, a business needs its building, signs and parking lot lights to be fully illuminated to help potential customers find these locations and arrive there safely.
Despite the obvious economic necessity of effective nighttime illumination, there are some special interest groups that are working to restrict outdoor lighting. The International Dark-Sky Association or IDA supports efforts to severely restrict the use of nighttime commercial lighting, and their influence is being felt not only in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals across the country, but also in thousands of local communities.
IDA was founded in 1988 in Tucson, Ariz., by some amateur astronomers who wanted to see the stars at night. Just two decades later, this small nature group has grown into an international environmental advocacy force with more than 15,000 members worldwide. IDA’s main objectives for outdoor lighting include fully shielded fixtures, downward lighting, minimum lighting levels and lighting only when necessary. This includes road lighting, residential areas, parks, and industrial and commercial districts.
Draconian Mandates
In some cases, their proposals include draconian dimming mandates and shut-off requirements. In the latter’s case, this means turning off illuminated signs when the business closes or after a certain prescribed time. But when it comes to limiting the brightness of your business’ signs, such lighting restrictions not only affect your ability to advertise, it could also impact your bottom line more directly if electrical and signage updates are needed to comply with new regulations. For example, if your business has already purchased an illuminated sign that is visible at night, such a mandate could ruin your investment and endanger your business. The imposition of these shutoff or lighting curfew requirements for signs hampers the delivery of the sign’s message and, consequently, its inherent value to the user.
Proposals include draconian dimming mandates and shut-off requirements.

Illuminated signs serve a different purpose than general lighting; they communicate and broadcast your business’s messages. This purpose extends beyond the operating hours of a business location. Even when a business is closed for the night, it can benefit from the advertising impact of an illuminated sign, as it continues to brand the site and reminds passers-by of the location for future reference. In addition, in restricting the use of illuminated signage, “Dark Sky” regulations interfere with the distribution of a message and the constitutionally protected expression of free speech.
More than 2,000 municipalities across the country have local ordinances governing light pollution, light trespass, glare and energy conservation. Twenty-five states have enacted or are considering Dark Sky-influenced laws. The typical language in such initiatives usually regulates “outdoor lighting fixtures to preserve and enhance the state’s dark sky while promoting safety, conserving energy and preserving the environment for astronomy.” These outdoor lighting restrictions may soon be heading your way as well.

Economic Impact
The economic impacts of Dark Sky regulations, even if they have a relatively small impact on nighttime commerce, could be significant. If there is a decrease in the levels of safety and security, or even the perception that safety and security have been compromised by a reduction in lighting levels or distribution at businesses, in commercial districts, in parking lots or elsewhere, it is likely that some people will choose not to venture out at night. Even a small decrease in customer traffic can be disastrous to a business. And when the average net profit margin for businesses is razor-thin, such a perception can be detrimental.
Experimenting with the economic health of a community should be undertaken only when the reason for doing so is of the highest priority. Small businesses and franchises should not be put at risk because amateur astronomers want to see the stars from their back yards. Jobs that support families should not be placed in jeopardy because an aesthetic preference for viewing the Milky Way in town exists. Backyard astronomy simply does not warrant a high enough priority to support tinkering with an already-fragile economy. Certainly each business should be able to purchase and use Dark Sky-friendly lighting if they so choose voluntarily, but the government should not force businesses, especially in these tough economic times, to change their commercial lighting to advance some non-essential environmental causes.
The International Franchise Association is working with a coalition of affected parties to identify and defeat any proposed legislation or regulation that would make such Dark Sky requirements mandatory. If you hear that your local officials are considering Dark Sky ordinances, contact IFA and let us know. The association has the expertise, resources and alliances necessary to help you educate your community leaders and persuade them to let you and other businesses keep your lights on. 
Judith Thorman is senior vice president of government relations & public policy for the International Franchise Association. She can be reached at jthorman@franchise.org or 202-662-0768.

 

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