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Driving Out Billboards
By Tim Post
January 30, 2001
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Minnesotans headed "up north" for a little fishing or a weekend at the cabin are used to them; billboards proclaiming great deals, fresh leeches or the best burgers in town. In an area of the state that relies heavily on tourism, billboards are big business. Now a group of citizens south of Brainerd want motorists to see only the scenery along a new stretch of road. Some business boosters worry that thousands of tourists will never know what Brainerd has to offer.

The old Highway 371 heading into Brainerd is cluttered with billboards. See larger images.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)
BUSY TRAVEL WEEKENDS are a lot easier in Brainerd since the opening of the C. Elmer Anderson Memorial Highway. The four lanes of new concrete let motorists bypass Brainerd, and the crowded old Highway 371 through town.

one of the state's newer stretches of highway is downright pretty. The scenic route travels through about six miles of woods with lovely vistas across the Mississippi, and not a single billboard.

"We are looking at, not a forested area, but a wooded area, free of off-premise signage, and there are a few residences along the roadway here, but a pretty pleasing look," says Mark Platta, chairman of the Crow Wing Township Board. "In the summertime too, along with the wildflowers along the ditches, (it's)aesthetically pleasing."

Platta says members of his township overwhelmingly want to keep the road "pleasing." They don't want billboards cluttering up the scenery.

Zoning restrictions prevent new billboards here, but it wouldn't be a difficult change to make. A zoning change on a piece of land from agricultural to commercial or industrial would mean a landowner could rent the land out to a sign company, and a billboard could go up.

Platta says the township wants to prevent that, so they asked for=and got - a one-year billboard moratorium along the bypass. He says that gives them time to work with the county on an ordinance that would ban billboards from the road, no matter what kind of changes comes to the area.

Mark Platta, chair of the Crow Wing Township, is trying to keep billboards off a six-mile stretch of scenic highway in his township.
Some business boosters don't necessarily like advertising restrictions along a major road. The Brainerd Chamber of Commerce says they are interested in preserving the aesthetics of the area, but say billboards serve a purpose; they steer travelers to services in Brainerd.

Billboard companies are playing along with the idea so far. Emil Radaich, works in the St. Cloud office of Lamar Advertising, a company with many billboards in the Brainerd area.

"The zoning doesn't allow for billboards, and as far as we are concerned that's the end of the story," says Radaich, who points out that if the zoning changes, he'd consider putting up a billboard or two.

The billboard ban is getting support from the Mississippi Parkway Commission. The state commission has requested the bypass, which will soon be designated as part of Minnesota's Great River Road, stay billboard-free. "It's their choice," says commission head Andy Golfis. "It's nothing the parkway commission can do. We can recommend to them what we feel is appropriate, but it's their choice on billboards that are out of the right of way of the roadway. The state has very little control."

To encourage the move, the Parkway Commission has put the possibility of federal funding on the table. If the bypass remains billboard free, it could be designated a "scenic byway." Federal funds could then be available for rest areas, trails, and promotional maps and brochures.

The effort to keep the bypass free of billboards could move to the state House. Rep. Steve Wenzel, DFL-Little Falls, says he plans to introduce legislation that would ban billboards on the C. Elmer Anderson Memorial Highway.

Tim Post covers central Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio's Mainstreet unit. Reach him via e-mail at