Allentown: Electronic billboard network coming

By Scott Kraus | The Morning Call | July 21, 2012

Few would confuse Ed Pawlowski with Don Draper.

But Allentown’s mayor and the dashing lead character of AMC’s hit series “Mad Men” will soon be linked by a common business: advertising.

While Draper dreams up the ads, Pawlowski is just hoping to place them on any manner of city-owned stuff.

If all goes as planned, the city will soon begin squeezing revenue out of ads plastered on everything from public trash receptacles to digital billboards built on city property.

With a pensions-fueled financial cliff looming, Allentown launched an all-out search for cash this spring, capped by the announcement Tuesday that the city hopes to raise as much as $100 million by leasing out its water and sewer systems.

But if the water and sewer leases are like taking out a second mortgage, the plan to sell advertising on city-owned property is more like rummaging through the sofa for spare change.

“It could bring in some dollars,” Pawlowski said. “Not a huge amount, maybe $300,000 or $400,000 [a year].”

The city joins a growing number of school districts and municipalities that have turned to advertising in recent years to meet rising costs and boost tax revenues that have lagged in the sluggish economy.

In recent months, the Parkland School Board approved advertising inside school buses and the Bethlehem Area School District is weighing a policy to allow ads on all types of school property. Baltimore is considering putting ads on firetrucks, while Chicago has hired a consultant to help it hit a $25 million public property advertising target for 2012.

“It really illustrates the desperation the cities are in,” said Joan Fitzgerald, interim dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University in Boston.

While the aesthetics of spreading advertising throughout a city are debatable, the biggest danger is the message it sends about the public’s willingness to pay for essential services, she said.

“It blurs the public-private distinction and kind of makes it OK that we aren’t funding public functions to a point to make them operable,” she said.

Pawlowski said he simply sees advertising as a way to raise much-needed revenue without raising taxes.

Allentown plans to start with a network of digital billboards scattered across the city on publicly owned property, and has selected Doylestown-based Premier Media of Allentown LLC to carry out the plan, pending City Council approval.

Other forms of advertising would follow over the next couple of years.

The billboards would not be erected in city parks, said city Controller Mary Ellen Koval, who was purchasing manager in early 2011 when the city issued a request for proposals for the work. But one could end up on the parking garage attached to City Hall.

“We have a lot of unused little bits of land in places,” Koval said.

The billboards would create a “digital outdoor network” that would be used mostly to put advertisements in front of city residents and visitors, but also to promote city events or disseminate emergency messages such as Amber Alerts that go out when children are reported missing, Koval said.

The plan would cost the city nothing. Premier Media would bear the cost of the billboards and the city would get up to 25 percent of advertising revenues, she said.

“It will be done in phases,” Koval said. “What the city is looking at is building a network to reach all areas of the city.”

The principals behind Premier Media of Allentown — politically-connected Democratic attorney Nicholas Pullen and engineer Larry Romanowski — had offered municipalities a similar financial deal in recent years involving cell towers.

Their former company, TowerOne Partners signed contracts with Lehigh County, Palmer Township and Bethlehem in 2009 among a host of other Pennsylvania municipalities, offering to put mobile phone towers on municipal property and share cell site rental fees. They built one tower in Bethlehem, and none in Palmer or Lehigh County.

The company was sold last year.

Pullen and Romanowski are now partnering with Lemoyne, Cumberland County-based Premier Media on the electronic billboards.

Allentown is the first city they’ve worked with on a network of digital billboards, Pullen said. The company does have one on public property in Upper Pottsgrove, Montgomery County.

Pawlowski said the idea to seek advertising revenue comes from a 2005 report on Allentown’s financial situation produced by Public Financial Management under the state’s early intervention plan for financially troubled municipalities.

“There are a lot of things if you think about it, we have all these garbage cans out there now, digital billboards, we have the potential to do advertising on city vehicles like other cities have done,” Pawlowski said.

There will be rules, he said, making sure advertisements are tastefully created and placed.

While Allentown contemplates getting into the digital billboard business, some other municipalities have been trying to limit their construction.

Bethlehem is considering a plan to space out and limit digital billboards to major highways, and South Whitehall Township put restrictions on electronic billboards in January, limiting them to non-residential areas and regulating the size and type of image they can display.

“There are appropriate places for billboards and you kind of look at your city and see where you want to have these types of uses,” said Joe Kelly, Bethlehem’s director of community and economic development.

Bethlehem leases city property near the Hill-to-Hill Bridge to Adams Outdoor Advertising for an electronic billboard.

“Municipalities are out there looking for all types of revenue sources,” Kelly said. “Using land to generate revenue isn’t a bad thing.”

Because Allentown is considering a five-year contract, it would require City Council approval.

But Pawlowski may not need the smooth Draper to pull off a vote in his favor. City Council President Michael Schlossberg, who admits he is “not a big fan of electronic billboards” is open to the idea, as long as the billboards comply with the city’s digital billboard guidelines.

“I would be willing to entertain it,” Schlossberg said, if it helps the city pay for needed services.

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