MADISON, Wis. -

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin's plan to ban some business signage in the city drew sharp criticism Tuesday from dozens of downtown business owners.

Paul Soglin has proposed enforcing the city's signage ordinance, which bans sandwich board signs in the public right-of-way, for the first time in about 10 years. The ordinance also restricts illuminated signs and requires that window signs not cover more than 20 percent of the glass.

But business owners, spurred by sluggish sales in the economic downturn, spoke up at an informational meeting Tuesday at the Overture Center. Many said the signs are critical to their business.

"That little sandwich board is vital to my business," said Diane Doughman, the owner of Mimosa Books and Gifts on Gilman Street. "It takes up about as much space as the chair I'm sitting in right now. It's the only thing my business has out there (on the sidewalk)."

Several owners said they ran second-floor shops, or businesses just off State Street, and needed the sandwich boards to attract customers. They can't afford to advertise, they said.

Soglin's plan got leaders at the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce concerned, said Delora Newton, the organization's executive vice president.

"When we heard the mayor wanted strict enforcement of the signage code, we asked, 'Why now? And with things facing the city right now, is that really the most important thing to focus on?'" she said.

Soglin has invited the Chamber leaders to be a part of a work group on the issue, she said.

But Soglin said that for every business owner who dislikes the proposal other people in the community support it. Many sandwich boards are unattractive, and disabled residents have a difficult time navigating around them, he said.

"There's a reason over the decades that State Street and the Capitol concourse have worked," Soglin said. "There's a reason for the vibrancy, and a lot of it has to do with the design."

Most of the nearly 100 people who attended the informational meeting raised their hands when one person asked who wanted things to stay the same. Some said they were willing to pay for a permit to keep their sandwich boards.

Other entrepreneurs thought Soglin should focus on more important things.

"Paul's our employee. Paul works for us," said John Taylor, a Carroll Street business owner. "We elected him. We pay him."