Sign of the economic times: threat of more mega-billboards
By Michael Lewis
Whenever an economy sickens, pitchmen leverage panic to promote quack remedies we'd never swallow in good times.
Government is at its most vulnerable, with revenue shrinking and need growing. When better to peddle false cures we'd regret forever?
The worse the times, the more anything goes.
The mega-casino pitch, for example, touts government income and jobs in return for permanently eroding everything Miami should stand for.
In the same category are massive advertising blots on a skyline where our tropical flavor welcomes well-heeled visitors who often become residents and investors.
The state has stalled the casino drive. But in city and county halls, proposed laws would make Miami far less attractive in other ways.
County commissioners are to hear in March a plan to extend the city's urban core boundaries in order to add more buildings on which monster billboards — euphemistically, wall murals — can rise.
Meanwhile, legislation at city hall would permit large advertising signs to cover city-owned buildings that can hold 1,000 people for events.
A county committee last week forwarded for a March vote the ill-conceived measure to expand the zone where massive wall murals can hang. If approved, signs many stories high and wide can blemish more of downtown.
Incredibly, sponsor Bruno Barreiro wrote that his goal is that the city would be "aesthetically enhanced by the addition of mural sign locations." That's the visual equivalent of opening a garbage dump to make downtown smell better.
Aesthetics is pretty wrapping on an ugly proposal. Truth in packaging would require that the measure spell out which buildings and sign companies would benefit.
In the same way, the city's measure to allow massive internally-illuminated signs on its own venues ignores the real reason for proposing to deface public property.
The proposal, deferred Jan. 26 and not yet rescheduled, cites "the dire economic situation of venues operating within city-owned buildings" as a reason to add advertising signs.
It doesn't mention city-owned Gusman Center, turned over Oct. 1 to new nonprofit trust Olympia Center Inc. to run.
But the trust's founder, advertising executive Herman Echevarria, told Miami Today in September he wanted an advertising screen to wrap the vintage Flagler Street theater. Artwork showed a screen covering three stories.
Everyone is grasping for revenues. Sign firms pay city hall at least $4,000 monthly ($1 per square foot) plus an administrative fee of $500, plus a new paid permit each time a billboard — sorry, wall mural — changes.
How much can that total? In 2010, the city approved leasing its attractive riverfront administration building at 444 SW Second Ave. for a five-story-high, five-story-wide billboard. The city stood to get $183,000 a year.
Pardon us, but that's chickenfeed for the face of the city's main building along an expressway. But then, no amount can make up for yielding Miami's image as a visit-live-work-play paradise. Ask any good marketer.
Still, shortsighted government officials are more than willing to trade our birthright for a mess of pottage.
At last week's county hearing on expanding the mural zone, Commission Audrey Edmonson articulated the case for selling off assets to get by:
"The voters are asking us to cut back, cut back, cut back. Do not raise taxes. Everyone is looking for another source of revenue to bring into these municipalities. I just can't be the one to stop it, because I see too many services being cut as it is."
We understand her dilemma: nobody wants to say no to more money, regardless of the long-term damage that taking the money will surely do.
But our friends at the Palm Beach Post made a point about casinos that applies equally to visual pollution reducing Miami's magnetism to both outsiders and residents:
We can continue to say no to what is wrong and face having to say no again and again and again, because bids to erode our way of life will continue. Or, we can say yes just once and live forever with the consequences, because once done we can't go back.
Our skyline from South Beach to mid-Beach to downtown is a staple in films and TV dramas, comedies and sporting events. It's the best advertising our visitor industry can get, and it's all free. It's a magnet for Greater Miami.
We can't imagine five-story-by-five-story product billboards as film or television lures for anyone.
Each visual incursion erodes what we're selling. City and county hall should realize that $183,000 for mega-ads on public and private buildings can never repay that loss.
If commissioners vote no, sign companies will return, over and over. But if they vote yes, we'll never regain what they're giving away.
Good economy or bad, we must not yield what makes us special.
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