Bob Lee may discontinue a 12-year-old practice of displaying merchandise outside of his colorful downtown Lake Geneva business.

The owner of Bob’s Beach Shack and other business owners in Lake Geneva’s central business district have been notified by city officials that stores are prohibited from displaying merchandise outside without a special city permit.

Lee said displaying goods outside his store, 140 Broad St., has been a way for years to promote the business and attract customers. The display has included merchandise as well as beach-themed decorations.

“It’s not like it looks horrible,” he said. “It’s inviting. It’s merchandising.”

The city sent business owners a letter recently cautioning them against the practice, and a city attorney says merchants could face fines of up to $1,000 if they disregard the notice.

Mayor Tom Hartz said the city has a longstanding ordinance on such displays, but officials decided this year to send out notices to business owners as reminders.

Hartz said the purpose of the enforcement action is to keep store items off the city sidewalks.

“It’s primarily to keep sidewalks available to pedestrians,” the mayor said. “It also falls under the overall historic downtown appearance that we’re trying to keep.”

Other business owners are raising objections.

Joanne Patzfahl, owner of Treasure Cove Gifts, 146 Broad St., said she has for years hung clothing items on her store’s outside window with white hooks.

Since receiving the city’s notice, Patzfahl has removed her displays.

Patzfahl said she does not understand the purpose of the city’s action, because hanging merchandise on the window does not impede pedestrian foot traffic on the sidewalk.

“We’re not putting it on the sidewalk here,” she said. “Why shouldn’t we be able to? I don’t understand that. We pay rent and taxes.”

The city’s letter to business owners also cited rules for window and sidewalk signs. The letter said that sandwich board-style signs are not permitted, either.

George Argiropoulos, owner of Lake-Aire Restaurant, 804 W. Main St., said he often puts a sandwich board side outside his restaurant to promote daily specials and to welcome customers.

“It’s something very minor, but now I guess we can’t do it,” Argiropoulos said.

City Attorney Dan Draper said the city’s ordinance has been in effect for many years.

Business owners found in violation could be fined up to $1,000 for disobeying the ordinance, Draper said.

Patzfahl and Lee both said they were told that if they continue to display their items outside, they would be subject to a fine.

“It’s nuts,” Patzfahl said. “We can’t advertise out on the sidewalk. We can’t advertise on our windows. We have to get customers in somehow.”

Lee said he researched the city’s ordinances and learned that a provision on outdoor merchandise displays was instituted in 1997. He said this is the first time he has been notified.

When he asked about the purpose of the enforcement effort, Lee said, a city employee indicated that it was for appearance reasons.

“My reply was, ‘It’s not a reason,’” he said. “It’s a personal opinion.”

Lee said he plans to continue to display merchandise outside his establishment until he has an opportunity to talk with his attorney. He said his attorney indicated to him that the ordinance may not be enforceable, but he wanted to conduct further research.

“I’m waiting to hear from him,” Lee said. “He said do business as usual until he determines that they can legally do what they’re doing.”

Lee said city officials informed about the special conditional-use permit would cost $400 a year, along with a $100 application fee. And there is no guarantee that a permit request would be granted.

The store owner said he is concerned about other government rules that could be placed on him and other business owners.

“Where does it end?,” he asked. “If they can tell me what I can do with my private property here, can they come into my store and say, ‘You can’t have pink walls?’”

Argiropoulos said although he may not agree with some of the regulations, he plans to follow the city ordinances.

“I don’t gripe with the city. I follow the rules,” he said. “I do whatever they want me to do. The last thing I want to do is have any fights with city hall.”