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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

Even if the billboard industry isn't supported by 89 percent of Utahns, it certainly has plenty of supporters. Public hearings at Salt Lake City Council and Planning Commission meetings over the past 18 months routinely attracted far more speakers in favor of the industry than those opposed.

Paul Murphy, spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, has touted the merits of electronic billboards in broadcasting AMBER alerts, saying they have helped in locating abducted children.

A representative from the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts of America credited electronic billboards for its accomplishments in collecting food for the needy.

And several small-business owners told city officials about their successes, attributing them to billboard advertising.

Todd Cella, owner of a startup basement finishing company Finished For 14, said he opted to advertise using only a digital billboard because of its relatively low cost compared with other media — TV, radio and newspaper ads. The results, he said, were far better than he'd imagined.

"I know the importance of advertising in this format," Cella told the City Council last year.

Studies also have shown that more people look at electronic billboards than the traditional large roadside signs, Young said.

"We can't look past what a great economic advantage this gives to businesses to advertise though this efficient mechanism," he said. "Electronic billboards really do work."

For now, YESCO officials have decided they won't attempt any electronic billboard conversions in Salt Lake City. Taking down a billboard in order to convert another to digital doesn't make financial sense for the company, Young said.

"As far as our company is concerned, we can't afford to shut half of our business down to deploy electronics in Salt Lake City," he said.

Other cities along the Wasatch Front have "much more flexible requirements on where you can and can't put electronics up," Young said, and YESCO will focus its business in those cities.

"It's a much bigger state than just Salt Lake City," he said.

Legislation stalls

At the Utah Legislature, Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, shakes hands with Young and Dewey Reagan, president and general manager of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, prior to the start of a House Transportation Committee meeting in February.

"I think over my legislative tenure, this is probably the third time I've had the privilege of dealing with outdoor advertising," Brown told the committee.

Brown then introduced HB87, the outdoor advertising industry's answer to restrictions on electronic billboards imposed by Salt Lake City.

The proposed legislation, along with an identical bill introduced in the Senate the same day by Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, aimed to prevent Utah municipalities from enacting or enforcing restrictions on billboard owners.

The bills also sought to prohibit any requirements that billboards be forfeited in order to upgrade to electronic signs.

"We're talking about, in my view, the responsibility we have as legislators to protect a viable private enterprise that makes a contribution to the economy and the job market," Brown told his fellow legislators.

The committee voted unanimously to advance the bill to the House floor, where it later passed by a lopsided 55-16 vote. But the bill stalled in the Senate on the final day of the session, in part because Niederhauser wasn't sure there were enough votes for it to pass.

"I could have probably got a vote on it, but there was not a lot of support for a bill that didn't have more buy-in on both sides," he said. "I just decided we were going to have to do it another year."

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