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Communities should plan for billboards now

Date: 8/24/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

The first time I saw a digital billboard, I thought I was seeing something.

The sighting took place during a trip to Scotland in 2006 and I chalked the change of image before my eyes initially to jet lag.

Now, the billboards that can store and display multiple images are more common in the United States. Essentially, they are like a huge television set using LCD light technology to display an image. There are some along I-91 in Hartford and, if all goes to plan, there will be one along I-91 in Springfield.

"If all goes to plan" is the operable phrase.

The state has authorized 16 companies to try out digital billboards in 18 locations for a one-year pilot program. There have been concerns expressed about whether or not the new billboard will create traffic problems by distracting drivers and if the light from a digital billboard in a residential area would cause problems.

One of these pilot locations has been granted to Lamar Outdoor Advertising and the company has been approved by the state to place the billboard at 603 East Columbus Ave. in Springfield on property owned by Balise Automotive Group.

Now the reason this story is significant to any community that borders I-91, I-291 or I-391 is the digital billboards appear to be the wave of the future. For billboard companies, the digital board represents a way to serve multiple clients in one location.

For communities the new boards could prove to be a new source of revenue. They have in some areas.

Just don't do what Springfield has done.

The City Council has to approve or deny a special permit for that pilot billboard. Councilors at a meeting on Wednesday basically argued whether or not the city should have an ordinance in place before they consider issuing a special permit. The ordinance process could take up to two months and the folks representing Lamar expressed a certain level of concern over how slowly the wheels of government turn in the City of Homes.

They have been waiting for months for a decision over the special permit. Now this doesn't make Springfield a very business-friendly community, does it? This has been a test for the City Council in its new role in the post-Finance Control Board era and frankly, I don't think they did so well.

So here's what I learned out of this cautionary tale. Every community bordering an interstate highway should examine their ordinances about billboards right now. Digital boards are on the way. Decide now just how you want these new billboards to be placed in a community and how your community could derive income from them.

Don't wait until a company is before your city council looking for approval of a special permit to begin debating the issue.


Food for thought: Beloit College has issued its annual "Mindset List" for the class of 2013 to remind people just how much of a cultural rift exists between generations. Most of the students in the freshmen class were born in 1991. The following are excerpts from the list:

1. For these students, Martha Graham, Pan American Airways, Michael Landon, Dr. Seuss, Miles Davis, The Dallas Times Herald, Gene Roddenberry and Freddie Mercury have always been dead.

2. Dan Rostenkowski, Jack Kevorkian and Mike Tyson have always been felons.

3. The Green Giant has always been Shrek, not the big guy picking vegetables.

4. They have never used a card catalog to find a book.

5. Margaret Thatcher has always been a former prime minister.

6. Salsa has always outsold ketchup.

7. Earvin "Magic" Johnson has always been HIV-positive.

8. Tattoos have always been very chic and highly visible.

9. They have been preparing for the arrival of HDTV all their lives.

10. Rap music has always been mainstream.

11. Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream has always been a flavor choice.

12. Someone has always been building something taller than the Willis (n e Sears) Tower in Chicago.

13. The KGB has never officially existed.

14. Text has always been hyper.

15. They never saw the "Scud Stud" (but there have always been electromagnetic stud finders.)

16. Babies have always had a Social Security Number.

17. They have never had to "shake down" an oral thermometer.

18. Bungee jumping has always been socially acceptable.

19. They have never understood the meaning of R.S.V.P.

20. American students have always lived anxiously with high-stakes educational testing.

This column represents the opinions of its author. Send your comments to or to 280 N. Main St., E. Longmeadow, Mass. 01028.