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Scenic St. Petersburg

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Mayor Rick Baker worked out a deal with the city's biggest billboard company to replace 100 old billboards with 10 new digital billboards.

By Andy Boyle, Times Staff Writer In Print: Friday, October 23, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG - ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Baker has worked out a deal with the city's biggest billboard company to replace 100 old billboards with 10 new digital billboards. The proposal is the latest episode in a long-running battle between billboard companies and local governments in the Tampa Bay area. The mayor sees the plan as a way to improve citywide aesthetics by removing what he considers a blight on the landscape. Meanwhile, it would provide billboard owners a more lucrative form of advertising. A digital billboard generates far more revenue than a traditional billboard at much lower cost, a fact underscored by Clear Channel Outdoor's willingness to trade 100 traditional billboards for 10 digital. Clear Channel owns 144 of the roughly 260 billboards in the city, according to a memo to the City Council. The digital billboards could change advertisements every 10 seconds. The speed at which advertisements change has been a point of contention in Clear Channel's discussions with Pinellas County. The company has five digital billboards in unincorporated parts of Pinellas that change every minute. Clear Channel has asked the county to allow ads to change every six seconds. Baker said he has worked on the plan for more than two years. He said he agreed to the change only if Clear Channel would remove most of its regular billboards, which he says are ugly. Baker's happy with the plan because it removes more than half of the company's billboards, he said. "It's a good thing for the aesthetics of the city," he said. Because city code prohibits digital billboards, Baker's plan requires City Council approval. Digital billboards are allowed in unincorporated areas of Hills­borough County, but not inside the city limits of Tampa. Clear Channel and another billboard company are fighting to get them in the city. Pasco County also bans digital billboards. In Tampa, neighborhood groups have opposed digital billboards, saying they are visual blights and cause traffic accidents by distracting drivers. It is unclear how the neighborhood groups in St. Petersburg will react to Baker's proposal. With digital billboards, ads can change almost instantly, and it's easier for advertisers to target specific areas. Digital billboards also don't require costly vinyl to be produced and installed for each ad. So production costs are cheaper and the number of ads that can be sold increases, leading to greater profits. But the switch isn't entirely about making more money in the short term, said Tim O'Neill, Clear Channel Outdoor's vice president for public affairs. Part of the strategy is to create billboard space along important roads, he said. "In the long run, we believe better-positioned billboards will allow us to provide better strategies to our marketers," he said, noting this was part of a local master plan. O'Neill declined to discuss prices. Clear Channel would have to remove at least 50 billboards before it could erect the first version, O'Neill said. If the plan is approved, the earliest a digital billboard would go up is the middle of next year, he said. But all 10 won't pop up at once, he said. It costs $150,000 to $350,000 to convert a billboard to digital, and none will be installed until there is demand. The company gets two years to remove old billboards and put up digital versions. Clear Channel is open to a compromise with the county on how quickly ads can change. The six-second demand was mostly a starting point for negotiations, O'Neill said. Something in the eight- to 10-second range would be acceptable and similar to times set in other cities nationally, he said. Digital billboards are proliferating across the country, and outdoor advertising revenue increased in the past decade, from $4.8 billion 1999 to $7 billion in 2008, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Andy Boyle can be reached at aboyle@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8087. [Last modified: Oct 23, 2009 12:26 AM]