ST. PETERSBURG — The Billboard War, part two, is about to begin.
Only last August, City Council members narrowly rejected a deal that would remove 80 traditional billboard faces, and replace another six with digital faces — a brighter, more eye-catching form of outdoor advertising.
Leading up to the vote, council members were blitzed on both sides. Industry advocates like Clear Channel Outdoor schmoozed them. Neighborhood activists opposing the deal threatened to remove them from office. The debate lasted hours and, without a strong push by Mayor Bill Foster, the council voted 5-3 against the plan minutes before midnight.
"I caved to the pressure," council member Wengay Newton now admits. "That was the worst vote I ever made." One of the five who voted against the plan, Newton will get a second chance.
The president of Clear Channel Tampa Bay Division told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Wednesday that the company will try again this summer. By July, the council might be considering another agreement that would allow the digital signs, said Daniel Dunnivant.
"It's amazing to me that it didn't go through last time," Dunnivant said. "It was partly our fault. We didn't do a great job communicating our side."
This time, Dunnivant says, the company will propose that all 80 current signs come down at once. Last year, the older billboards would come down only as new digital signs went up.
Also, Clear Channel has launched a website, 80down.org, that explains the company's side of the story. The site says the new signs don't flash or move, showing instead a static image every 10 seconds. The signs are outfitted with dimming devices so they don't burn too bright.
Dunnivant was accompanied by council member Jeff Danner, who supports replacing the old billboards with far fewer digital boards, and Brian Longstreth, a local real estate broker, who said it would be cheaper for small businesses like his to advertise.
Opponents of digital billboards are bracing for a second round.
"We're discussing what we need to do," said Maureen Stafford. "But it's ridiculous that it took less than a year for this to get resurrected."