Thursday, August 21, 2014

Blight’s Costly Drag On Business Appeal

City, county and state governments bemoan the cost of litter removal while continually cutting back, but the drag on businesses is 7 times greater.  It is a factor for this sector equal in concern to regulation.

I love North Carolina.  I’ve lived here for more than 25 years, nearly as long as I lived in my native Rockies.

While my now concluded career was community promotion, for me, that always included the responsibility to candidly assess weaknesses in the three destinations I served, including the latter half of my career in North Carolina.

I must admit that based on 35,000 miles of cross-country trips since I retired, traveling roughly 14 different routes, with the exception of states directly south, North Carolina is one most billboard-blighted states in America.

There are exceptions.  As Mugs, my English Bulldog and I departed last month on our latest cross country venture, a Western Tea Party Senator suggested the Federal Government just turn Federal highways over to the states.

No thanks.

That Senator hails from a county in Utah where I attended college.    Back then it was dotted with little towns where sense of place as well as the dramatic landscape was clearly visible even from the highway.

Now it has become the most blighted stretch in the country.  For the most part, that state is billboard free but its cities, towns and counties have ruined vast stretches such as Utah and Salt Lake Counties.

In most states, it appears to be the cities, towns and counties that enable billboard blight, but in North Carolina, the state piles on by sanctioning another 8,000 billboards along its Interstates.

Because of the blight and deforestation they create, billboards are known as “litter on a stick” because they are just a larger form of that same blight.

While enabling greater billboard blight in North Carolina, Republican legislators have obsessed with gutting regulations as a way to help businesses, something to appease the 1-in-3 businesses pressing them about that issue.

Ignored is the finding in another survey of business and economic development agencies finding that roughly that same ratio of businesses cite upkeep and cleanliness as a major influence during decisions to locate, relocate or expand.Litter Costs

An even greater percentage find that litter has an impact on how a site is perceived when evaluated, and nearly 1-in-5 believe it presents a negative picture of the governments responsible for these areas.

If legislators want to lower the cost of doing business, one of the important ways they can do it is to eliminate roadside blight, starting with billboards.

As of 2009 when I retired, businesses nationwide shelled out $9 billion annually to remove litter, nearly 80% of all direct costs associated.  This represents a drag of $80 per employee, a cost 7 times the collective amount spent on litter removal by cities, counties and states.

Many argue that businesses should shoulder the entire cost, like the purpose of regulations, because the market failed to incorporate the cost of clean up from careless disposal of the residue from the products they sell.

A relatively small percentage of the population is responsible for the 5 million tons of litter dumped on America each year, about 17%, 4% intentionally and the rest through carelessness and being too lazy and possibly obese-prone to walk over to a receptacle.

Seth Godwin is the entrepreneur who first signaled the end of “interruption marketing,” also known as “spam” such as billboards.  To paraphrase, he believes the mindset of those who litter see property as either theirs or not-theirs.

To me, this is the same mindset of people who feel they have the right to let their dog poop on your lawn or in public spaces without picking it up.

These are also the folks who ignore a line of merged traffic to bully their way in front, or clear cut instead of being selective when timbering or run their cattle into rivers and streams polluting watersheds or across public lands where prohibited or without paying fees.

Or blighting neighborhoods and roadways with billboards to freeload on publically funded and owned roadways.  They feel free to vandalize because there is no “ours” in their world view, only “screw or be screwed.”

Removing blight does not mean doing with less.  Fewer billboards is about scenic preservation.  As Godwin notes, reducing litter is about the self control to hold on to it until we come to a receptacle.

Over the years, ignoring the importance of appearance has been bipartisan in the North Carolina legislature, dating back at least 200 years right up to the present.

While Republicans have been on a blight offensive in recent years, it was Democrats who stripped the state’s cities of the court-approved ability to utilize amortization for the cost-effective, win-win remove billboards.

Billboards have no intrinsic private property value because they are totally reliant on taxpayer funded roadways for value, something the courts label as parasitic.

The courts had sanctioned their removal by a process where cities seeking to become more appealing could give these out of state companies seven to ten years to recoup their costs before billboards were removed.

The Democrat who led the charge in North Carolina to override the courts, giving cities no alternative but to wait until billboards fall down from disrepair, argued in a meeting in Durham which banned billboards in the mid-1980s that “billboards are good for the economy,” not to mention campaign donations perhaps.

Tourism may be one of the biggest industries in North Carolina and  scenic beauty given lip service as a part of the state’s economic development appeal, but that attribute has been under constant attack from the legislature since at least the early 1800s.

Scenic beauty was the genesis of tourism to North Carolina in the 1820s when it drew wealthy planters from the lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia to its mountains, the highest and most dramatic in the Appalachians as they stretch from New England to Alabama.

But within a few decades, the legislature here sacrificed tourism by selling out to out-of-state timber interests creating wholesale deforestation.  Photos of the Blue Ridge Parkway under construction show the devastating effects four decades later.

By that time, North Carolinians were under siege by another kind of blight, billboards.

In the late 1960s, America cracked down on litter including billboards.  Intensive efforts reduced litter by 60% and billboards were to be restricted to commercial areas already blighted by that time.

But through a mix of legislative subterfuge, regulator complacency and corruption as well as choking off funding, blight continues to drag on home values, neighborhood vitality, public health, scenic appeal and much more. 

Today, even though they are used by only 3% of small businesses with consumers rapidly migrating to GPS including apps on smartphones and tablets for both navigation and local search, legislators continue to enable billboards to deforest the state and undermine its appeal.

We can continue to delude ourselves into thinking our state is somehow inherently irresistible, but visitors, newcomers and relocating business executives can see the widening gap between claim and reality.

If you don’t believe me, just take a road trip.

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