Digital billboard swap not a county priority

Appeasing outdoor advertisers shouldn't be high on the Pasco County Commission's to-do list. In fact, it shouldn't be on the list at all. Commissioners should be trying to appease Pasco's residents, the people who benefit from past commission decisions to ban new billboards and adopt other aesthetic controls on bus benches, commercial signs, the exterior design of big box stores and tree and landscape requirements. Beautification shouldn't take a back seat to private-sector profits.

But, Tuesday, Commissioner Pat Mulieri indicated a willingness to entertain a pitch from Clear Channel to install new digital billboards that can rotate multiple advertising messages in exchange for taking down traditional billboards in the county. The company proposed a 6 for 1 swap.

It is a weak opening offer. The company negotiated a deal with the city of St. Petersburg – later scuttled by a Council majority – that called for taking down 80 signs in exchange for installing six digital boards on I-275. That is a swap of 13.3 to 1. How come Pasco is worth less than half?

The Pasco Commission asked Clear Channel to provide an inventory of its billboards, but it should scrutinize closely the company's data. In St. Petersburg, Clear Channel originally said it would remove 110 of its 144 billboards if it could erect just 10 digital boards. Later, the city discovered the company's count was off by a dozen and it had only 132 billboards. The commission should be aware of potential chicanery.

In Pasco, much of the billboard proliferation came in 1999 on the eve of first a moratorium and then an outright ban on new billboards. Clear Channel and others rushed to grab permits for billboards to beat the new ordinance. The result is an abundance of signs on major roads like U.S. 19 and U.S. 41, but a clutter-free environment on newer highways like State Road 56.

If the commission is serious about tackling a billboard swap it needs concrete information, including the number of billboard structures per company, traffic counts and crash data on the locations, age of the structure and whether the sign space is sold to an advertiser or simply includes a telephone number soliciting for business. It makes little sense to allow the private sector to install brightly lit, highly profitable digital signs at busy intersections in exchange for taking down an inventory of seldom seen, rickety or unsold signs in remote locations.

A more imperative question to consider is: Why even bother with this right now? Pasco County is amid an extensive revamping of its planning and business climate that includes trying to redevelop west Pasco, rehabilitating Lacoochee, driving new development and job centers to transit-oriented locations along southern Pasco, and searching for contaminated commercial/industrial sites to ready them for remediation and redevelopment.

Commissioner Henry Wilson was correct. Billboards can wait. Pasco has plenty of opportunities to improve its appearances without worrying about outdoor advertising.

Digital billboard swap not a county priority 11/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 7:03pm]

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