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News & Features
Billboard Battle is Just Starting
By Laura McCallum
November 3, 1999
Part of MPR Online's "Campaign '99" Coverage
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Voters in St. Paul have rejected an attempt to eliminate about half the city's billboards. About 53 percent of voters rejected a measure that would have removed billboards from city streets and prohibited new signs. The billboard industry says the vote shows people don't want to get rid of a legal form of advertising, but billboard opponents say they're not giving up.

Final Vote
To Ban Billboards:
NO   39,388    53% YES 34,480   47%
AS THE NUMBERS were coming in, members of the "Scenic St. Paul" committee who gathered at the No-Wake Cafe realized their billboard question was going down to defeat.

The group had argued that billboards are a blight in St. Paul neighborhoods, ruining the landscape and lowering property values. But Scenic St. Paul committee chair John Mannillo says they couldn't compete with the billboard industry, which spent an estimated $500,000 in the final two weeks of the campaign.
Mannillo: There was a lot of misinformation that got out; people thought that we were banning all billboards, they thought we were hurting charities, they thought we were going to take freedoms away from them. Clearly that wasn't the case. We didn't have the money to set the record straight, certainly not in two weeks.
But billboard supporters say it wasn't just the money that led to their victory. Lee Ann Muller, president of Eller Media, which owns most of the billboards in St. Paul, says most people don't have a problem with outdoor advertising.
Muller: I think that the citizens of St. Paul are saying that number one, any business that's operating legally, with permits that have been granted to them, should not have their property taken away from them. And definitely not taken away because a small group of people want to label it as something they don't like.
Muller says the billboard industry will now work with St. Paul city officials to draft a new sign ordinance. She says a similar ordinance adopted in Minneapolis five years ago has led to the removal of nearly 300 in neighborhoods, and the construction of about 40 signs in commercial areas.
Muller: What it can result in is a reshaping of, as neighborhoods have changed, and they feel that perhaps there's signage in areas that have now returned to being a more residential area, we can shift those into more commercial areas.
Billboard opponents say that shift will take years, and they're pledging to put the issue back on the ballot in St. Paul again next year. They say even if they didn't win this time, they drew attention to the issue, and now residents will notice billboards in their neighborhoods. They're also promising to push for legislative action. DFL Senator John Marty of Roseville says he'll re-introduce a bill that would prohibit any more billboards across the state.
Marty: And you know, it may not pass at the Capitol next year. I don't have any illusions that it's likely. I think what it does is it keeps the heat on, and then they come back in St. Paul, and they push it through in St. Paul, and then all of a sudden you've changed the political dynamic at the Capitol as well.
The billboard industry says it will continue to fight sweeping measures to restrict its business. Industry representatives say the voters of St. Paul have spoken, and billboard opponents should pay attention.