Good for business or bad for scenery? Salt Lake City renews battle with billboard industry

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 5:57 p.m. MDT

An electronic billboard on 600 South in Salt Lake City in Nov. 2011. Now that legislation to regulate conversion of electronic billboards has failed, Salt Lake City is gearing up for another fight with the outdoor advertising industry.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — An orange background frames a man and woman, both smiling and dressed in dark business attire, the woman with her arms folded.

Reagan Outdoor Advertising is hiring account executives.

Moments later, a blue and green screen features the image of a father giving his daughter a piggy-back ride. "Select security," the SelectHealth ad advises.

The screen is now red, informing motorists on 600 South that Wasatch Transfer is the place to go for their moving and storage needs.

From the northeast corner of 600 South and 300 West, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker watches the electronic billboard across the street cycle through images — eight seconds at a time.

It's troubling to Becker that, in some cases, billboards are the first sights for visitors as they arrive in Utah's capital city. In particular, electronic billboards — those with digital advertisements — do not present the image the second-term mayor wants for Salt Lake City.

"We live in, I think, the most beautiful setting of any city in the nation," he said. "You see that in all our (tourism) advertising. … We don't advertise to come here and look at our billboards. We advertise to come here and experience our city, to experience this beautiful landscape we have."

The battle over electronic billboards is playing out across the country, with some states, counties and cities banning their use and others allowing them only if other billboards are torn down.

In Utah, the battleground is Salt Lake City, where decades of intense lobbying, financial contributions to lawmakers and a push by pro-business interests are pitted against city leaders and concerned residents trying to prevent Utah from resembling Florida, Michigan, Missouri or Wisconsin — where the outdoor advertising industry runs rampant to the tune of 15,000 to 20,000 billboards per state.

The emergence of electronic billboards in Salt Lake caught city officials off guard. Six of them were installed — including two on 600 South — before city leaders and planners knew what to do with them.

"We were all of a sudden starting to see (electronic billboards) spring up in our community, and we realized we had no standards for them," Becker said. "We knew we needed to put a hold on what was going on while we evaluated what would be a good policy for Salt Lake City."

Today, 19 requests for digital billboard conversions from Reagan Outdoor Advertising, Utah's largest billboard company, are being held up while city officials work to come up with an ordinance to regulate where or how they can operate in Salt Lake City.

If Becker had his way, no electronic billboards would be allowed. And the 145 traditional billboards in the city would be coming down, too, wherever possible.

"I think it is pretty commonly held here … that billboards in the numbers (Salt Lake City has) and where they're located are a blight on the city and its natural landscape," he said. "That's the view I hold. I don't hide it."

The prevailing opinion at the City-County Building is billboards don't belong in residential areas; on boulevards such as 700 East and Foothill Drive; or main entries to the city, including 400 South, 500 South and 600 South.

There's little city leaders can do about billboards already in place in those areas, aside from a handful where permitting is being disputed. But they can keep billboards there from being converted to digital signs, and for now, that's what they intend to do.

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