ST. PETERSBURG — The message on today's proverbial billboard: We need more time.
The City Council decided Thursday to postpone a decision on Mayor Rick Baker's plan to allow Clear Channel Outdoor to replace 110 billboards in the city with 10 digital ones.
The deal isn't likely to surface again until February, after Baker's term has ended. Mayor-elect Bill Foster takes office Jan. 2.
The council was scheduled to vote on the deal next week. But questions surfaced about location, height, spacing of signs, transition times, safety and what an ordinance change might mean for the future. Presented with everything, two city committees gave the proposal a thumbs down. Dozens of citizens e-mailed objections.
The council sorted through it all at a workshop Thursday with the mayor, the Council Of Neighborhood Associations and billboard representatives.
"I like the idea of trading off the billboards and getting rid of them," council member Jim Kennedy said. "But I'm very much concerned about going against unanimous recommendations from (the committees)."
In the end, council members decided they needed more information.
Baker said he didn't mind waiting.
"This is not something I'm trying to get through before I'm out of office," he said. "I'm okay with deliberation continuing after that."
Baker said the issue is simple: 110 billboards or 10?
"It's a very basic question," he said. "I'm not sitting here as an advocate of digital billboards. I see it as a balance of having digital billboards against the ability to remove a lot of the visual clutter in our city."
Former Mayor David Fischer, no fan of digital billboards, is on Baker's side. The two took a drive around town to look at billboards. Fischer thought about Interstate 75 going up to Tifton, Ga., and how many billboards are stacked on top of each other, and how St. Petersburg should be different.
"I just came to the conclusion that this was well worth a one-time shot to get rid of a whole host of billboards," he said.
Staff will address the ordinance and present it again to the review committees, which may be more supportive once questions are answered.
Members from CONA were frustrated that Baker had worked on the project for three years but very few people knew about it until recently. Tabling the vote isn't really solving the problem, they said.
"We're not against digital billboards," said CONA representative Travis Jarman. "That is not the issue here. The issue is, this ordinance is a quick solution that does not deal with the larger question of what we want our city to look like."
Foster, who has said he hates digital billboards but understands Baker's intention, hasn't taken a stance.
"I really have to get more up to speed on all of the data before I come up with an official city position," he said. "I've got my personal opinion … but there are pros and cons. I agree with council's decision to table it because there is no rush. We're going to fully vet the issue before we go down that road."
Where Clear Channel is concerned, St. Petersburg has a golden deal. The plan originally called for 44 signs to come down. Then 52. Then 62.
"Seventy becomes, I'm looking for a job," said Tom O'Neill, Clear Channel Outdoor's local vice president of real estate and public affairs. "That is because your mayor said, 'I don't want a deal' until it absolutely cleans this town of what he considers blight …
"This is the best deal that's out there anywhere."
And, he said, several other cities have asked Clear Channel for the same deal.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.