In October 2008, Lamar Advertising proposed to city officials the use of Digital Electronic Message Centers (DEMC) if they were allowed to erect one on city controlled property at the foot of the Cape Coral Bridge. A similar offer last October added a second DEMC billboard on city owned property along Veterans Memorial Parkway and would provide two smaller DEMCs free of charge for the city to use at its discretion.
That long process may come to fruition soon as City Council voted 5-3 Monday night directing staff to draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) that would allow Lamar to bid and possibly proceed with installing the DEMCs.
"Digital is where the industry is going," said Lamar general manager Ed Bolter. "It provides instantaneous delivery of messages. We allow government to take over the system for things like child alerts, hurricane evacuation messages and the like. It helps contribute to the welfare of the community."
The billboards would be used for off-site advertising through Lamar as well as the above mentioned emergency messages and public information about city events, like Bike Nights, art festivals and Red, White & Boom. The two small DEMC units could be used to replace the banners the city hangs on the Del Prado Boulevard overpass, removing safety concerns for city workers charged with hanging the banners from bucket trucks.
"These signs create a new line of annual revenue streams for the city," Joe Mazurkiewicz of BJM Consulting told council representing Lamar. "It is an entrance feature to our city, like the one at the Del Prado extension. It serves a public purpose. The city has the ability to allow these on city property and limit their use elsewhere."
The current and past sign ordinances specifically prohibit off-site advertising signage, but makes no reference to billboards or DEMCs. If Lamar's proposal comes to pass, it would be the first time the city specifically allowed billboards or DEMCs on a limited basis. Two non-digital back-to-back billboards, owned by Lamar, predates the city's recent annexation of that part of the city.
Councilmember Rick Williams shared concerns over the DEMC locations in heavy traffic areas as a potential safety hazard.
"We recently passed a sign ordinance to temper down signage and now the city if thinking about putting up two obnoxious signs," added Williams. "Tonight we need to decide if we want these signs or not, and if on city land."
When the vote was taken, Williams and Councilmembers Derrick Donnell and John Carioscia cast the dissenting votes against drafting the RFP.
"I think this could be an enhancement and a revenue stream for us," said Councilmember Rana Erbrick.
"The process in which the city is doing this puts them at a disadvantage," said Bolter during a brief recess. "We are the experts. We know what we are talking about. They (city) don't have a clue. They don't know what it takes to build what we build. It's going to be difficult. We have to be silent now."
Bolter addressed the safety concerns voiced by Williams.
"Florida DOT uses them along the interstates, and even Lee County is tied into the system," said Bolter. "Every study ever done by government agencies, not by us, has found that there are no safety concerns associated with digital signs. I'm disappointed that the project will go through the RFP process, but we will respond to the RFP. Council is continuing the process and moving forward after six years. I am tickled we are moving forward."
City Manager John Szerlag asked council to consider three specific questions: "Does the city want billboards? If the answer is yes, do you want them restricted? If yes on restricted billboards, will that lead to restriction or preclude other billboards?"
Mazurkiewicz cited similar exceptions made by councils in the past.
"It's the same concept as the cell towers you allow on city property," he said. "Sometimes you hang your equipment on them. You allowed the Boathouse at the Yacht Club, but that does not mean you would give another restaurant a spot at Jaycee Park. No one wants a proliferation of billboards, electronic or otherwise, throughout the city and that's not what Lamar is proposing. They are providing a new idea just like when I was in office when a company proposed using low pressure membranes for the RO plant instead of high pressure ones. It's new technology. I just ask that you direct staff to produce an RFP in a reasonable time, not another six months."
Staff indicated that it could bring the elements of an RFP back to the council members for approval before they go on their summer hiatus next month.