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Digital billboard push ramps up in Indianapolis

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Sunday, February 10, 2013 - 1:39 pm

INDIANAPOLIS — Outdoor advertisers hoping to persuade Indianapolis to lift its decade-old ban on digital billboards say the time has come for the change, and they're hoping to find receptive ears on the city-county council.

Clear Channel Outdoor wants to convert up to 30 of its 1,260 Marion County billboards to digital formats and is proposing an ordinance that would require companies to remove an equivalent amount of billboards for each sign that is changed, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported (http://bit.ly/14A1oL6 ).

"You'd see a net reduction in the number of billboards in Marion County," said John Kisiel, Clear Channel's vice president of real estate and public affairs.

Digital billboards have been growing in popularity across the country since 2007, when the Federal Highway Administration issued guidance on their use.

Indiana passed a law that year allowing digital billboards in areas where they aren't banned, and the state Department of Transportation drew up rules the following year.

Digital billboards have appeared in other central Indiana counties since then. Clear Channel also has digital billboards at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, which was able to skirt the city's ban in 2010 because it is state-owned property.

"If you go down Fall Creek (Parkway), you see that big ol' digital billboard," said Democratic City-County Councilor Joe Simpson, one of two sponsors for the measure to remove traditional billboards when digital versions are put up. "The thing I love about it, it's very friendly."

The city's 2003 ban on digital billboards stems from concerns about safety and digital clutter. It prohibits advertising signs with flashing lights, animated images and video.

Simpson said he thinks digital billboard messages are easy to read from a distance and likes that they often include information about weather conditions.

Simpson said he is willing to lobby the Metropolitan Development Commission, which would have to approve any zoning change. The nine-member board rejected a 2008 attempt by Lamar Outdoor Advertising to install two digital billboards in Lawrence.

Simpson said new Department of Metropolitan Development Director Adam Thies is "way more open" to considering the proposal.

Thies said he'll meet with industry representatives but hasn't formed an opinion on the issue.

"The only reason I'm looking at it is it's a topic that's been brought up by many people, and I'm doing due diligence to get myself informed," Thies said.

Margaret Lloyd, vice chairwoman of Scenic America, said the industry's proposal to take down some existing billboards in exchange for digital ones is a common strategy that has gained approval in some cities. Others, including Austin, Fort Worth and Houston in Texas, have stuck by their ban, she said.

"It's really a public policy decision of what you want your city to look like," said Lloyd, whose anti-billboard group sued the Federal Highway Administration last month, alleging its 2007 guidance to states violated lighting standards set out in the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.

Urban design expert Bruce Race said the offer to take down existing signs might appeal to city leaders because it's difficult to remove billboards from urban neighborhoods. Landlords often earn more rent from billboards than buildings, he said.

But the city risks creating a "blank slate" for the industry if it doesn't think carefully about where to allow digital billboards and what image they want to project along busy roads, added Race, an associate professor in Ball State University's College of Architecture and Planning.

Prime locations could include the area around Lucas Oil Stadium, he said.

"We need a strategy that connects to our other objectives," Race said.

Industry lobbyists like Kisiel say digital billboards can be cheaper for advertisers because they share the space and can change messages on short notices, which can help in cases such as missing-child alerts.

But he acknowledged that not everyone will be persuaded.

"There are people who don't like billboards and are not going to like billboards," he said.

Information from: Indianapolis Business Journal, www.ibj.com