St. Pete City Council rejects digital billboards
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08/19/11 Josh Holton
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Digital billboard along I-275 in Pinellas County.


photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF (Jan. 2011)

After several years of negotiations, St. Pete City Council voted after midnight Friday to reject an ordinance that would have allowed construction of digital billboards. Clear Channel Communications had offered to take down 80 billboards in exchange for building 8 new digital signs.

At the meeting, about 20 people representing communities throughout St. Petersburg opposed the ordinance. Only about 5, most from Clear Channel, supported it. The move could have netted more than 20 million dollars for the city over 20 years, but opponents said it wouldn’t be worth the long term damage to the city’s image. Mary Alice Lange represents the Historic Old Northeast Association.

"The board opposes all digital billboards of any form in the city of St Petersburg and respectfully asks that each city council member votes to maintain the current ordinance established in 92."

But St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster argued that this was a great opportunity to remove the visual blight of static billboards.

"Getting rid of forty faces and then trading in other forty for three. Getting rid of the visual blight that's in the neighborhoods now. I think is so important. Attrition will move at a snail's pace."

Council member Jeff Danner agreed with Foster, fearing that the City would never again have such an opportunity to have so many billboards taken down on Clear Channel’s dime. Danner said at that the current rate of attrition would still leave dozens of static billboards standing for decades.

"And I do know how to do the math. Twenty- seven percent in ten years of the eighty we're talking about. In ten years we'll still have fifty-eight. In ten years we'll still have forty-three. In fifty years we'll still have seventeen. I a hundred years we'll still have five by eliminating twenty-seven percent every ten years"

Supporters of digital billboards say they would be a good showcase for local businesses to advertise, though one opponent remarked he can already get enough information on his smart phone. The Grand Central Business District Association president Kurt Donley supported the ordinance, because many of its businesses received discounted advertising from Clear Channel.

"Grand Central has kind of separated itself from CONA (Council of Neighborhood Associations). We are not for removing all billboards in the city. We think advertising is a good thing. It can be done properly."

When Clear Channel held previous meetings to discuss pros and cons of digital billboards, neighborhoods were only given a few minutes to state their case, and CONA had to hire a private attorney in order to even join the discussion. Council member Steve Kornell admonished the lack of transparency.

"The experts came from Clear Channel only. I think an expert should have come on the other side and those should have been compared. Then a decision made. At that point should we proceed and then the part should have happened with Clear Channel."

Supporters claimed that the billboards could help local arts and tourism, but opponents pointed out that states like Vermont are thriving without billboards at all.And while Clear Channel lobbyist Todd Pressman argued that the proposal’s advertising potential would create jobs. But Council Member Steve Kornell didn’t see the connection.

"Just because a corporation makes money does not necessarily mean they go out an start hiring people. Their job is to make money and they should do that and I welcome that. And they should make money but the two do not always go together."

Todd Pressman doesn’t live in St. Petersburg, and he asked the council to vote on facts, not the emotions of St. Petersburg residents who might receive digital billboards. But one resident Nikishia Dixon said that there are studies that show digital billboards to not only be bright and gaudy, but also unsafe.

"After doing a little bit of research I was able to find several studies that showed an increase in traffic accidents in area in which billboards were introduced. Some increases were as high as thirty-eight percent in accidents. The billboards are used to capture the attention of commuters and that's exactly what they do. These same studied showed a two second glance doubled the risk of crashes or rear crashes on highways. Driver safety risk is increased particularly for billboards placed at intersections and at bends in the highway."

Council member Bill Dudley said a pretty lady walking down the street is just as distracting as a digital billboard, but many opponents pointed out that billboards become a permanent fixture of the landscape, providing distraction 24/7. Jim Kennedy joined the majority in a 6 to 3 vote to reject the ordinance after hearing dozens of community members passionately oppose it.

"With that I see we're at 11:59. So we will, does anyone have any last minute thing that they want to say anything."

After the losing the deal, Clear Channel’s Todd Pressman told WMNF that Clear Channel is no longer planning to remove any static billboards. But CONA chair Maureen Stafford vows to eventually rid St. Pete of all billboards, and said Pressman’s position is all sour grapes.

"We at CONA know that the work has got to come will start now. Hopefully this brings us to a point where we can take the momentum of everybody who came here tonight on both sides and we can work to make this billboard blight go away. This is the beginning. I thank you for the opportunity for that."

After the meeting, City Attorney John Wolfe said that although opponents of the ordinance might feel success in having stopped digital billboards, the state still has the power to override local governments and allow them in the future.

Previous WMNF coverage of digital billboards

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Comments

Doin the math...

You would think 8 for 80 would be a good choice... not in this case!!! Good call St. Pete...