The Saint Paul Port Authority has proposed changing the city’s zoning code to allow large digital billboards to be erected on or outside any sports arena in downtown that has more than 1,000 seats. The Minnesota Wild’s Xcel Energy Center already has two large digital displays. This zoning change would make it possible for the Port Authority’s Treasure Island Center and the Saint Paul Saints’ CHS Field to have multiple digital billboards, too.

The Wild and the Saints already benefit from millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies. Now they want to enrich themselves by selling off the beauty of Saint Paul at the public’s expense. Billboards devalue surrounding real estate. They also reduce the city’s tax base.

The Port Authority owns a majority of Treasure Island Center. Revenue from billboards has always been a part of its plan for financing the renovation of the former Macy’s department store. The Port, however, is not just asking for a zoning variance to erect two digital billboards at Treasure Island Center, but for an entire zoning change. The Saints have jumped on board, and we can expect the Wild to do the same. Allianz Field in the Midway area will likely be next.

New billboards are not just about revenue

The current proposal is not just about revenue, though. Behind the scenes is an effort by the billboard industry to expand digital advertising throughout the city.

Here’s how it works: The billboard industry cuts a liberal deal with one location, and that opens the floodgates. This is what happened at Xcel Energy Center in 2001. There were promises for only on-site advertising at Xcel with no additional billboards there or anywhere else in the city. However, the city was quickly sued by a different billboard company. The city lost that suit because it had made a special deal with the Wild, and as a result six more billboards were allowed in Saint Paul neighborhoods.

We were assured that this wouldn’t happen again. However, CHS Field soon requested a variance to install a digital billboard. The variance was denied by the City Council. But then, just last year, Xcel Energy Center applied to have a 2,900-square-foot banner installed on the side of the hockey arena, and it would have been approved by the city if not for an appeal by Scenic Saint Paul.

And they’re not about revitalizing downtown

We at Scenic Saint Paul may not object to the digital billboards at Treasure Island Center if we were assured no additional billboards would be built. However, the Port Authority and Clear Channel Outdoor are not willing to guarantee that. They talk of digital billboards adding to the vitality of downtown, but if vitality were the goal, it could be achieved under current law by only advertising the business tenants at Treasure Island Center.

 

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The Port Authority’s intent is to allow advertising for outside organizations, which will only serve to direct local spending away from downtown. That is what the billboard at the Xcel Energy Center does. It has a permanent ad for Walmart. Walmart doesn’t even have a store in Saint Paul.

Billboards discourage development

Billboard leases last for many years. They discourage commercial development as well as any expansion of the tax base. Saint Paul has several billboards in desirable locations, which cannot be redeveloped without removing the billboards first. Unfortunately, it’s very expensive to buy out billboard leases. A few years ago, when the state rebuilt Lafayette Bridge, Minnesota taxpayers had to pay $4.2 million to have a digital billboard removed.

Billboards are detrimental to residential development, too. City code states that a digital billboard may not be built within 300 feet of any residence. Digital billboards are like giant TV screens that cannot be turned off and can be seen for thousands of feet. Even when there are no residences nearby, they almost guarantee that no new residences will be built nearby in the future.

Finally, the vast majority of the revenue generated by billboards goes to the billboard companies, almost all of which are headquartered outside of Minnesota. They are selling something they don’t even own—our view. Real estate appraisers call this “an incurable defect.”

Port Authority needs to be transparent

The Port Authority needs to be transparent with the public by disclosing the terms of any billboard lease at Treasure Island Center—both before and after it is signed. I asked that Scenic Saint Paul and the public be able to review the lease prior to its approval by the City Council. The Port Authority refused, saying that this was a for-profit project not subject to such review.

That’s absurd. The Port Authority is a creature of statute with taxing authority. It has two City Council members as commissioners. It has a legal and a moral obligation to let the public know what’s in any lease. We’re not asking to negotiate the billboard deal, but we need to know what the Port Authority and City Council are agreeing to. If the lease is good for the city, why wouldn’t they want to share the details with us?

— John Mannillo

John Mannillo is a resident of Highland Park and the chair of Scenic Saint Paul.

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