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Local sign businesses paint growth picture

by: Merry MacKinnon, Ben Schonman, into new digital technology, demonstrates that sign-making really is what drives his business--while down the hill, on S.E. Holgate Boulevard, at the much larger Security Signs, sales for 2006 are projected to be $5 million.

If sales at a certain type of fast-growing inner Southeast Portland business are any indication, the local economy's recovery is in full swing.

After several years of unremarkable sales, Security Signs, 2424 S.E. Holgate Boulevard, started to see a significant upturn in its business in 2004, when sales climbed to $3.6 million.

'For us it's been dramatic,' says Security Signs President Carol Keljos. The company also recently hired five more employees, making a total of 35. That's five more added to the nearly 21,000 workers employed by local businesses with addresses in the 97206 and 97202 zip code areas, according to Oregon Employment Department 2004 figures.

Security Sign's clients include Oregon and Washington banks, restaurants, title companies and, lately, a lot of spas. For example, the company did Starbucks' sign up the boulevard on S.E. 39th, as well as signs for Goodwill, Standard TV and Appliance, and for the Woodstock Professional Building.

But times weren't always so good. Shortly after Carol and her husband bought their sign business in 1997 from a family who had owned it for 70 years, sales stalled. 'The first year we doubled our sales,' recalls Keljos. 'But then they went flat. That was pretty devastating, because we had to do capital investment.'

Like many other businesses, Security Signs' sales also stagnated after the terrorist events of September 11, 2001. Five local sign companies went out of business then, Keljos recalls, but Security Signs held on. Gradually, sales increased. Now, Keljos projects 2006 sales at $5 million or better.

Sales at one small Woodstock custom sign business also stalled several years ago, but have likewise increased again, and now the owner, Ben Schonman says, 'I'm still getting a good volume of work.' One example of Schonman's work is Otto's menu board on S.E. Woodstock Boulevard.

Primarily a one-person operation, what altered Schonman's sign business was a change in technology. Digital printing is now replacing hand-painted and vinyl signs, he explains. 'There's always going to be a place for quality hand lettering and vinyl, but digital has taken a large part of the market.'

No matter whether the sign is large or small, hand made or industrially produced, one consistency that Schonman observes in his business is that service is critical. 'That has not changed,' he says. 'But people are more cost conscious.'

In Keljos view, recent economic growth in the Pacific Northwest has meant plenty of sign-making work to go around. 'All of our competitors are doing very well,' she says. But, for one academic who studies urban issues, the question of whether sign sales indicate how well Portland's neighborhood businesses are doing is debatable.

'It's not a real good bellwether,' says Ethan Seltzer, director of Portland State University's School of Urban Studies and Planning. For example, Seltzer, who in the '80s worked at Southeast Uplift, points to all those computer-based businesses operating from homes in Inner Southeast Portland.

'The point is, today, not every business puts up a sign.'