Does the Intl. Sign Assn. (ISA) Need to Be near Washington, DC?

On Sept. 22, 1980, the National Electric Sign Assn. (now the International Sign Assn.) moved from Oak Brook, IL to the basement of a bank building in Alexandria, VA. In that same tumultuous year, NESA hired its first paid president, George Kopecky and implemented its Regionalization Plan, which included the hosting of a national convention in Philadelphia and three other regional tradeshows in 1981. The 1979 NESA president (now called “chairman”), George Roberts, drove some of the furniture from Chicago to Alexandria.  (For more, see the related article: “How NESA Moved to Alexandria, VA.”)

At that first NESA convention following the move, Sen. Peter Domenici (R-NM) was the keynote speaker. Although plans included nothing but a venue, the Franklin Hotel, in December 1980, the March 22-25 show included 55 exhibitors.

Roger Williams (1983 NESA chairman) and John Johnson (part of Kopecky’s original staff) reiterated in 2016 that the move to Alexandria greatly benefited the sign industry.

Today, the Intl. Sign Assn. presents the world’s larggest sign-industry tradeshow, the Sign Expo, every year. The 2016 show was sold out three months ahead of time with more than 600 exhibitors. ISA has created and grown the rapidly expanding  Sign Manufacturing Day (on the second Thursday in October) that exposes collegiate and vocational-school students (and their instructors!) to myriad career opportunities in the sign industry. ISA also helps educate planners nationwide with factual information about the value of signage.

But does ISA’s location near our nation’s capital really matter?  Today?

In this age of omnipresent electronic communication and satellite offices, does it need to pay the exorbitant overhead and salaries required for an Alexandria, VA-based entity?

How would Alexandria compare to a middle-of-the-road Midwestern city like Cincinnati? Sperling’s Best Places rates cities like IQs; 100 is considered exactly average. The overall cost of living in Alexandria is nearly TWICE that of Cincinnati (156 versus 83). And the cost of housing in Cincinnati is more than 130% less than in Alexandria. Other comparisons are below. According to the National Assn. of Home Builders’ 2016 data, an average home in Alexandria is $499,300, while a similar house in Cincinnati would be $343,391. The following chart was created by Sperling.

Alexandria vs. Cincinnati

Source: Sperling’s Best Places

According to another cost-of-living index (based on the same 100-is-average concept) of 325 U.S. cities, Washington DC/Arlington (they were lumped together) was the 10th highest of the 325 at 140.1 Five of the other top 10 were quasi-New York City (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau County and Stamford, CT). For housing, Arlington, VA scored 226.4, while Cincinnati was 81.9. What would the salaries look like in Cincinnati? Approximately half? Utilities? How much more money could be saved if ISA purchase space or another building? ISA’s 2016 budget currently stands at $7.1 million.

According to the City of Alexander, in 2016, 12 tenants/owners reside at ISA’s address, 1001 N. Fairfiax St., Suite 301. ISA owns its suite, but not the building itself. ISA paid annual property tax of $39,168.98 in 2014 and 2015 for its 11,991-sq.-ft. suite.  The property-tax rate is $1.04 for every $100 in valuation. ISA  bought its suite on 9/5/2007 for $4,169,990. It value was listed at $3,755,415 on 1/1/2015. 

In terms of staff, ISA currently lists 17 people. Two are not employees, but outside contractors, and one employee is in Phoenix. Of the other 14 who work in the Alexandria office, 11 joined ISA since 2010. Four joined in 2015. 

The volatility of movement within association circles is common, as people routinely move from one association to another while advancing their careers. The nature of the association itself is of little consequence. Yet the turnover at ISA is significantly higher than is customary with associations. The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), which represents more than 21,000 association executives, said the average time that association employees remain in a position is 7.2 years, according to its 2014 Association Compensation and Benefits Survey. So 11 of the 14 people wouldn’t have average duration with ISA.

Years in Position (2014)

Source: ASAE, 2014 Association Compensation and Benefits Survey.

Thus any geographic move wouldn’t be especially hampered if employees couldn’t/wouldn’t move. And in these days of satellite offices, Skype and electronic communication, the old standards for interoffice interaction is less important in today’s world.

Regulatory issues

A common assumption is that any national association has to be located in the greater Washington, DC, area. After all, that’s where all the laws are made that impact all businesses and industries. As of July 1, 2015, the Federal Election Commission reported there were 5891 Political Action Committees (PACs). 

ISA has a PAC, aka Sign PAC.  (The old NESA created its first political action committee, called NESA PAC, in September 1981.) According to Federal Election Commission records, on January 15, 2015, the ISA PAC had $6578.10 in “cash on hand.” On December 31, 2015, Sign PAC had $6578.10 in cash on hand.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, ISA contributed $5,000 to six political candidates in 2010, and $1,000 in 2012 and 2014.

According to OpenSecrets.org, from 2001-2011, ISA spent $60,000 on a lobbyist, Karl Gallant of Aduston Consulting, or $5454 a year.

Even if this money was put to optimal use, how much influence could ISA have on Capitol Hill?

In contrast, the Outdoor Adv. Assn. of America (headquartered in Washington DC) PAC distributed $69,739 in 2015 alone, according to the FEC. Of course, since 1965, OAAA has battled the myriad iterations of the Lady Bird Johnson-initiated Highway Beautification Act, which is federal legislation.

Sometimes, ISA has admirably quelled federal regulations that would erroneously and negatively impact the sign industry. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), in 2010, proposed energy-efficiency regulations that would have hurt the electric-sign industry (the “why” is a long story). Fortunately, ISA, via its technical advisor, Bill Dundas, was able to explain why electric signs weren’t pertinent to ASHRAE’s goals, and the sign industry was granted an exemption.

But ASHRAE’s headquarters are in Georgia, so ISA’s DC presence was irrelevant. (As an aside, ISA has since discontinued having a technical services position, and Dundas is no longer with ISA.)

In its 2014 Progress Report, ISA notably reports it provided 735 planners and city administrators with a “greater understanding of signs and sign codes through ISA-sponsored programs.” Numerous presentations were made throughout the country. But the location of ISA’s headquarters was completely irrelevant.

If not the greater Washington DC area, where? Or would that even matter?

What if it relocated to Cincinnati, OH? The American Sign Museum, the “soft sell, happy” component of the sign industry that everyone loves, is already there. The University of Cincinnati is already greatly entwined with the sign industry, having already hosted five consecutive National Signage Research & Education conferences (2010-2014). Additionally, it has endowed chairs in the prestigious School of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP), as well as in the marketing department of the Carl Lindner School of Business. A third chair is being sought in the School of Law, coming on the heels of the landmark Reed v. Gilbert Supreme Court decision in July 2015. Finally, Cincinnati is also home to the 116-year-old trade journal, Signs of the Times. Together, these venerable entities could help create the Sign Capital of the United States. 

ISA’s current 12,000-sq.-ft. office space is valued at $3.7 million, or $347/sq./ ft. In contrast, a 17,000-sq.-ft. industrial space in Cincinnati is for sale for $360,000, or $21.18/sq. ft.

Does ISA need to remain in Alexandria, VA, or should an objective, thorough investigation examine alternative locations?