Wednesday, September 04, 2013

An Achingly Slow Epiphany to Blight

I’ve only met one person who likes roadside billboards.  Ironically, he’s a friend of mine.  Still, I wonder if he might be pulling my chain, but he says it is because he has trouble reading the “logo signs” alerting travelers to businesses located at exits.

Like many of my former colleagues in community destination marketing, including several who have been counseled by my friend, he may need stronger glasses so he can see the blight created by billboards.

Of course, truth be known, I didn’t really see it myself until the last decade of my nearly four-decade career in community destination marketing.

In Spokane, where my career formally began, I was too busy cutting my teeth on destination marketing to notice billboard blight, or possibly I was just too focused on transforming industrial blight to even notice.

After all, wasn’t the Highway Beautification Act which was passed as I finished high school supposed to limit billboards to only commercial areas already blighted at the time?    Little did I know lobbyists had already corrupted enforcement.

In Anchorage, where I spent the second decade of my career as a DMO exec, billboards had been constitutionally banned at statehood two decades earlier, so they weren’t an issue.

Billboards didn’t begin to come into focus for me until I arrived in Durham, North Carolina in 1989, but it took another dozen years for me to truly “get it.”

During my initial due diligence to understand Durham values, always a core element of a community’s brand, I learned that not only had Durham banned outdoor billboards five years earlier, but the community had also won a decision in the United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit a four years later after Fairway Advertising (then named Naegele) sued.

Rejecting claims that the billboard prohibition infringed on free speech, the Court held that it “advances legitimate city interest in aesthetics.”  In other words, the Justices recognized that scenic preservation is a crucial element of sense-of-place and economic development.

So naturally, I nixed inclusion of billboards in any Durham marketing efforts, especially when public opinion polls used to monitor internal stakeholders showed them growing even more unpopular with residents, including newcomers.

But across most of the state, I stood alone on this issue.  What is now the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association, whose members are predominantly chains, had submitted a brief against Durham on behalf of Fairway during the lawsuit.

And our state’s division of tourism gladly used complimentary billboards across North Carolina to promote the state’s brand to residents.  Interesting juxtaposition…promoting the state’s brand while simultaneously desecrating it.

Learning to dodge “friendly fire” while promoting Durham became a career skill.  Even counterparts who marketed communities which had also placed curbs on billboards seemed oblivious at best to being out of synch with their community’s values.

Having lost at every level in the courts, Fairway went to work on state legislators where campaign contributions can be influential.  My job often involved joining together with others to help educate state officials and lawmakers about the impact of tourism.

In doing so I became aware that given their lack of success in the courts, Fairway and other billboard companies were investing huge amounts of campaign contributions along with other favors – all legal at the time - to influence the legislative process.

But admittedly, my focus in rejecting them in marketing plans was based on being consistent with community values.  Even the use of them to appeal to prospective visitors from communities that encourage billboards seemed hypocritical.

As I began the last decade of my career, I was forced to think more deeply about billboards.  An supply side economic development counterpart, who narrowly fancied himself a marketer instead, never missed an opportunity to refer someone to me who advocated the element of advertising.

This brought a socialite and philanthropist to my office often over a period of many months in an effort to persuade me to use billboards to promote Durham.  Unfazed by my logic or Durham’s prohibition, the person even tried to corral me by lobbying governing board members and elected officials.

That is when I began a deeper investigation into all sides of the issue of roadside billboards.  This included those passionately pro- and anti-billboard and a deep evaluation of the metrics on their effectiveness or, as it turned out, lack thereof.

Everything I studied seem to validate my decision not to use billboards.  But then something happened that turned me passionately against the huge roadside distractions.

In 2004, out-state billboard companies reaped a huge a return on their “investment” when Democratic lawmakers pushed through a law to deny cities and counties the right to use amortization to remove billboards which had been ruled fair and lawful by the courts.

The Democrat who spearheaded the legislation was clear in news reports that he wanted to make it “too expensive” for cities and counties to prohibit new billboards and/or remove those that were non-conforming as Durham had.

Many people including some of the nation’s founders misused the theory of “states’ rights.”  Often it has been perverted to enable travesties such as slavery and then later for denying of civil rights which continues even today.

I believe in the concept because to me as long as they  are consistent with the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the land, the closer governance is to where people actually live and work, the closer it comes to being truly representative.

This seems especially true at the local level which is the only one shown in polls as highly regarded by the public.

Taking away amortization was a sleazy tactic to end run local governments and the democratically-expressed will of their residents. That one act turned me from avoiding billboards to becoming a passionate opponent.

Hoping Durham had somehow forgotten, Fairway was back in Durham the year before I retired at the end of 2009 with a clever, but thinly-veiled proposal to trade the removal of some billboards for the right to make others digital.

Quickly stacking a committee of the Chamber of Commerce with supporters and then chilling discussion by its board, Fairway won endorsement there, stunning many who recalled that organization’s support of the prohibition.

The executive of the downtown organization felt confident enough in his personal endorsement of the proposal to make the organization’s website homepage a billboard but the downtown board refused to take a stand.

The organization I led polled residents to better inform the debate and neighborhood activists took up the prohibition’s defense when city officials were told they had to be neutral after a complaint by Fairway.

The result of the poll showed residents were overwhelming against the proposal and in support of the 25-year-old prohibition.  Durham had grown 36% larger since the ban was put in place but its population even more adamantly valued aesthetics over billboards.

Officials voted a few months before I retired.  I heard that some Fairway executives were overheard to say they had enough voted for a favorable outcome. They were stunned.  The vote was 7-0 against any change to the billboard prohibition.

In a rage, billboarders turned statewide again.  Finding sympathetic Republicans now in power,  they leveraged the power of campaign contributions even more.  To those suspicious, they claimed the proposed changes that would undermine communities were “minor technical fixes.”

With others, they fueled mutual resentment of North Carolina’s cities and towns.  Behind closed doors and in print it was crowed this was done to “teach Durham a lesson.”

In two sessions now, legislation has passed that essentially overrides local community values and concerns statewide.  Even the Governor, now also a Republican has backed away from campaign statements that billboards should be left to local control.

I guess states’ rights for these particular Republicans is a one-way street. Good as a defense when they consider any federal action as over-reaching but quickly brushed aside when they want to lord it over local communities.

So there it is, the story of how I came to see billboards for what they are and become a passionate defender of scenic preservation.  Hopefully, my former colleagues in community and destination marketing won’t take as long as I did to see through this obsolete and destructive form of advertising.

But I am not holding my breath.  Many may be even slower than I was to grasp that wherever blight is tolerated it becomes your community’s brand. Others have the same chip on their shoulder that billboards do.  Some don’t seem to have a clue.

Nothing short of a voter-approved constitutional amendment embedding the overwhelming anti-billboard sentiment of North Carolinians as shown in public opinion polls will stem an enablement of blight that will only get more egregious.

My pessimism is born by the fact that until such a amendment occurs, billboard interests are voting each and every day in the halls of the legislature both by arm twisting and through copious amounts of strings-attached cash to underwrite election campaigns.

It isn’t how democracy is supposed to work.  As experts write, it may literally be a corruption of democracy and a subversion of public sentiment and will, but it is legal, legal corruption.

Chillingly, Lisa Margonelli, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation writes in the current issue of Pacific Standard that social norms about what is okay are less defined than they were just five years ago, the last year of my career.

It is no wonder then that trust is so low and concern about corruption is so high on polls of Americans.

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