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

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

"They make it almost impossible for a local government … to remove a billboard," Becker said.

The Liberty Wells Community Council knows that all too well.

For years, community members attempted to negotiate the sale of property on the corner of 1300 South and 300 East, where one of Reagan's billboards is located.

Thirty years ago, Salt Lake Police Sgt. Ron Heaps was shot and killed at the site in the line of duty. Retired Lt. Art Healey, Heaps' former partner, led an effort for several years to raise funds in hopes of purchasing the property and building a memorial there.

Reagan refused to sell.

"I, personally, would like to see something worked out," company president Dewey Reagan told the Deseret News in 2010. "I know that memorial is important to that community. But it's got to work for all parties."

The community is now focused on a new piece of property at 256 E. Herbert Ave., where it plans to construct Ron Heaps Memorial Park. Thanks to a $240,000 grant from Salt Lake City to purchase the property, the park will be shared with Lincoln Elementary School and will include vegetable and flower gardens.

"It's a classic example of what happens when you try to work with these companies," Becker said. "It's not just the effect of the billboard. It's also the way they practice their business that tends to be pretty offensive."

Work in progress

Salt Lake City's ordinance regulating electronic billboards remains a work in progress.

It's unlikely city planners will advance a proposal the outdoor advertising industry will be happy with; the goal is to find an approach they can live with.

Becker says part of that process will include putting aside past prejudices and bringing billboard companies back to the table for discussion, along with members of the community and leaders from other cities along the Wasatch Front.

From Young's perspective, such a compromise would need to eliminate the requirement that sign companies remove a billboard in order to convert another to digital.

"We would strongly be in favor of (the ordinance) being relaxed and unrestricted to open the opportunity for other businesses to advertise this way," he said.

Standing outside the YESCO offices, Young motions to the north, where a Key Bank on Foothill Drive recently added a drive-through to its branch.

"What if the city were to say, 'To put in a drive-through, all you have to do is close another branch of yours?'

"It's preposterous to think why a city would place such a requirement on any industry," Young said.

Salt Lake City isn't the first to suggest a conversion ratio for electronic billboards. Cities including Long Beach, Calif., and Tampa, Fla., have enacted 10-to-1 conversion ratios to reduce the number of billboards. Other cities with such policies include Cleveland (7-to-1), Orlando, Fla., (4-to-1) and Dallas (3-to-1).

Becker says it makes sense to reduce the number of billboards for every digital sign because "one electronic billboard can really be the equivalent of six or 10 billboards with the frequency of how they change their messages."

And the mayor isn't ready to concede on that point, at least not yet.

"We're going to try to come up with a standard that we think will work for our communities and work for the outdoor advertising industry," Becker said. "We hope that both reason and sensibility prevail."

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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