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City says change is bad

The digital sign at Ernie Haire Ford on Florida Avenue is a splashy show of American flags, whizzing trucks and zooming motorcycles.

It advertises "sign and drive" specials, and "zero down" deals.

Manager Keith Thiesen says it's been effective since going up about a year ago.

"People will call up and say, 'I saw your sign,' " he said. "It stands out."

The trouble is, it's illegal.

"That's news to me," Thiesen said.

Tampa's sign code prohibits "activated" electric signs that change images or messages more than once every 24 hours.

Code enforcement director Curtis Lane said only a handful of businesses have been cited for the signs, but city officials recently cited a Walgreen's near downtown for its electric sign, which alternated images to inform people of pricing specials.

A spokeswoman at the Walgreen's corporate office had no comment other than to say the company's attorneys were researching Tampa's sign code.

Some people want the rules changed to allow the technology.

Hillsborough County code allows "changeable copy" signs to alter their message electronically once every six seconds.

And there are some legal activated signs in Tampa, most notably at Legends Field (its owners got a variance), and at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Florida Aquarium, which are classified as government property.

"The city code gives pretty broad exemptions for government signs," said Mark Brenchley, who reviews sign permits for the city.

But commercial operations aren't supposed to have the signs.

"Even some of the high schools have them," said Bob Smith, owner of Electric Sign Company. "But they're not allowing the other people to have them, which we think is totally unfair."

Smith serves on a committee that's been working for nearly two years on revising Tampa's sign code.

About 10 people served on the committee and reached consensus on all issues except the electronic signs, with the two representatives from the sign industry advocating for more lenient regulations, said Margaret Vizzi, a Beach Park resident and member of the committee.

But a majority of committee members said they want the city's code to remain as it is.

Vizzi worries a proliferation of the flashy signs will cause car accidents.

"We feel that it's distracting," she said. "When you see these signs, you tend to want to look at them."

Then there's the aesthetics.

"We don't want it to look like Times Square," she said.

As the code is now, billboard companies wanting to take advantage of the latest technology would not be able to launch their new products in Tampa.

Throughout the country, electronic billboards have gained popularity. There are about 200 in the United States, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Many went up in the past year.

One of the newest is in Pensacola. Last month, Lamar Advertising installed a billboard on Interstate 110 that changes its message every six seconds with advertisements for different businesses, including a lawyer and a furniture store.

Several more are on the way.

"That's because the technology has become easier to install and implement," said John Fleming, a spokesman for the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association in Tallahassee. "These are the next-generation signs, where instead of using vinyl and print the message on it, you're using an LED that you can change by remote control."

One advantage of the signs is that they allow a crisper image.

But they also allow billboard companies to sell the same space to more than one advertiser, or allow advertisers to easily change their messages.

For example, McDonald's could advertise Egg McMuffins in the morning and Big Macs in the afternoon.

"Digital technology is changing the world. Billboards are no exception," Fleming said.

The Florida Department of Transportation allows six-second display times with two-second change times for billboards along interstates, Fleming said.

And, he said, research has shown the signs are not a safety hazard.

Smith said if the signs did cause accidents, the state - and the city - wouldn't allow them in any situation.

"There are no accidents happening," Smith said.

The City Council is scheduled to review the sign code in the next month.

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