TAMPA — Nearly two years after Tampa allowed the first digital billboards to rise along its highways and major roads, more could be on the horizon.
When city officials first opened the door to electronic billboards in 2010, they made what an industry representative calls a "pay-to-play" arrangement with two big outdoor advertising companies.
Under the city's ordinance, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor could put up six electronic billboards each. But for each new digital face, they had to take down or give up the rights to 10 old-fashioned billboards. And the removals had to be permanent.
Those rules helped the city settle a legal battle with Clear Channel and CBS that had dragged on for years. At the time of the vote, City Council members said they would take a couple of years to see how things worked out, then maybe revisit the issue.
So far, Tampa has approved nine digital billboards: six for Clear Channel and three for CBS, which is allowed three more. All face major roads: Interstate 275, Interstate 4, Fowler Avenue and Channelside Drive.
In February, development consultant Todd Pressman, representing Clear Channel, reminded the council that it had been nearly two years, and the city hadn't received a single complaint about a digital billboard, so why not expand the deal?
Council members held a workshop April 26 at which they said, in essence, okay.
Going into the workshop, Clear Channel requested raising the cap to allow eight additional digital billboards. As a result of the original deal, Pressman said, the company had taken down 48 traditional billboards.
"It's eliminating signs that would never have come down," he said last week. Not only is it a scenic improvement, he said, but the company makes the electronic billboards available to local, state and federal authorities for public service announcements, bulletins about wanted felons and emergency alerts.
Council members agreed, with Mary Mulhern absent at the vote, to instruct the city attorney's office to write up a change to the ordinance: The cap on electronic billboards would go from six to 14 for each company. As before, companies would have to give up 10 traditional billboards for each new electronic one.
Pressman said Clear Channel could make the trade: 80 traditional billboards for eight new, electronic ones.
"There's a large inventory in Tampa," he said.
The city's other existing restrictions on electronic billboards will remain in place. For example, digital billboards that face the same direction would still have to be 2,500 feet apart; the images can't flash, scroll or appear to move; and, depending on the type of road, messages can't change more often than every 10 or 15 seconds.
"Virtually everything else is remaining the same," senior assistant city attorney Julia Cole said Friday.
She still has to bring a revised ordinance with the new cap back to the council for approval. She expects that will probably happen in June. The council then would have to vote twice to approve the change, with the second vote coming after a public hearing.
Although Tampa council members took the first move to raise the cap with relatively little discussion, the topic of electronic billboards stirs debate elsewhere.
In St. Petersburg, the City Council last August narrowly rejected a deal that would have removed 80 traditional billboards and replaced another six with digital faces. Last week, the president of Clear Channel's Tampa Bay division said the company would try again this summer. Meanwhile, one St. Petersburg council member who helped kill the deal said the decision was "the worst vote I ever made."
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.