For me, one of the most memorable debates on the Madison Common Council floor was over a proposal to ban the one rolling billboard that makes its way around Camp Randall on football Saturdays. It's basically a two sided billboard attached to the back of a truck. It looked like the proposal might be on its way to passage until one alder asked the city attorney if this would mean that we would also be banning the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.
Mike May looked up, and thought for a moment. Council members leaned forward in their seats. And then he dropped a bombshell. "Ya know," he said, "I don't know." With that, the council could not act fast enough to place the ordinance on file, killing it and avoiding a backlash from elementary school children all over town.
This story gets to the highly subjective feelings about advertising in Madison. Some people are OK with it. Some people hate some of it, but would never touch the iconic traveling hot dog. Then there are the truly hard core who would even ban the mobile sausage from our town.
I'm ambivalent about this kind of advertising, but I tend towards a libertarian approach: sign and let sign. The bike sharing system in Paris (which started the craze around the world that resulted in the B-cycle system here) turns a profit, and actually pays the city by selling advertising on station kiosks and the bikes themselves. People generally think Paris is an attractive city despite this. Go figure.
In Madison, we wouldn't allow advertising on the B-cycle system, and the truth is that it wouldn't have yielded that much money anyway, because unlike Paris, we're not the most visited place on the planet.
But as a general rule, I think we should loosen up a little. Far from a mar on the landscape, I think signs are part of what make up a vibrant city. It's commerce, and cities are about this as well as a lot of other things. I love the view of the Mautz paint sign from Breese Stevens Field -- where baseball should be played again some day! And I love the "Cardner's Purity" bread and "King Midas Flour" signs on Willy Street.
Probably the best example of beloved advertising is the iconic Lombardino's sign painted on the side of an otherwise nondescript building on Old University Avenue. I believe it's literally true that that building would be gone and swallowed up by a new development taking shape around it if it wasn't for the sign.
So I thought it made sense when the city recently announced a deal on new billboards. For decades, Madison has banned new billboards with the intention of eventually eliminating all billboard advertising in the city.
Whether or not you think that was a worthy goal, it will be virtually impossible now under laws passed by the legislature and subsequent court rulings. Billboards can't be condemned for economic development purposes (as they should be in at least two cases) and the city would have to pay prohibitive prices for them even if they could be.
It gets worse. Under state law and court rulings, billboards must be assessed for tax purposes by the value of the billboard structure itself, not its income stream. But if the city moved to condemn a billboard, it would have to pay for its significantly higher value in advertising revenue. It's as if the city could only assess your house for the current value of the framing and the plaster and the roofing materials and the like and not the real value that you could get for selling it. This not only makes no sense, it's deeply unfair because it means that billboard companies aren't paying nearly their fair share of property taxes while imposing a strong externality (whether it bothers you a lot or not at all) on the city landscape.
The result was that a couple of billboards that really were a problem for development at the Villager Mall and at Union Corners could only be acquired for prohibitive amounts if the company wanted to sell at all.
But as part of a negotiated settlement to a successful claim that they were over-taxed, the city attorney worked out a deal where those billboards would come down in exchange for the opportunity to put up to five new billboards elsewhere in the city. And the city, the school district, the county, and MATC get out of paying a combined $1.1 million in returned tax payments that the court said Adams Outdoor Advertising was owed.
It's a good deal all around. Local governments get out from under a substantial liability, and the Villager and Union Corners can proceed with redevelopment without the obstacle of those billboards. And, appropriately placed, the five new billboards won't even be noticed, which I suppose is not really what the billboard company wants.