It wasn't the dozen pairs of blinking plastic sunglasses or the parade of nonprofit groups praising the generosity of Fairway Outdoor Advertising but a photo of the R. Kelly Bryant Jr. Pedestrian Bridge that may have made the biggest impact on the Durham City Council's vote on digital billboards.
The newly erected pedestrian bridge, which gracefully spans N.C. 147 at Alston Avenue, serves as the eastern gateway to Durham and joins northern and southern neighborhoods fractured by the highway. Posted near one of the bridge's ends is a black and yellow billboard advertising the Dixie Gun and Knife Show happening this weekend in Raleigh.
The clash of these two landmarks—a digital billboard would outshine the bridge at night and dwarf it by day—underscored public and council concerns about the impact of these billboards on aesthetics and property values, without any proven benefits to offset the social, environmental and financial costs.
Council members had received more than 1,000 e-mails from the public in support of keeping the current ordinance to prohibit digital billboards, and fewer than 10 e-mails supporting the change and digital billboards. The City-County Planning Commission also voted 12-0 in opposition to the change.
"This issue has united Durham like no other," said Councilman Mike Woodard.
One of the 1,000 e-mails was from the bridge's namesake, a respected African-American community leader who asked that council keep the existing ordinance.
"What are we going to do about that billboard?" asked Councilman Howard Clement, who was deeply perturbed by the billboard's message touting the gun show.
Lewis Cheek, attorney for K&L Gates, the firm representing Fairway Outdoor Advertising, replied erroneously that only by changing the ordinance could that billboard come down.
In fact, Fairway can choose what advertisements appear on its billboards. Like newspaper, radio or TV, outdoor media can reject or position advertising as they wish. And as Councilwoman Diane Catotti noted, the billboard could indeed be dismantled under the current ordinance—it just couldn't be replaced.
"Durham has nothing to gain from [the ordinance change]," Catotti added.
After more than three hours of public hearing and discussion, Durham City Council voted unanimously, 7-0, to keep the existing ordinance, which prohibits digital billboards in the city limits.
The city's billboard battle had been festering for two years. In the most recent flare-up, Fairway enlisted the help of nonprofits that receive free billboard space to advocate for the company's position—even providing a sample letter to the groups for them to send to elected officials.
And in the days leading up to Monday night's vote, political observers, like bettors at the racetrack, kept scorecards on how City Council members might break on the ordinance. Four votes would constitute the simple majority needed for a measure to pass.
During council discussion, Woodard and Catotti, who had been openly critical of digital billboards, reaffirmed their support for the current ordinance.
Eugene Brown, thought to be leaning the same way, but who was not considered a shoo-in, joined Woodard and Catotti. That was three.
When Cora Cole-McFadden, who had grilled Fairway on its contention that digital billboards would add local jobs (there is no evidence that they would), said she would support the existing ordinance, a small gasp leaked from the audience. That was four, enough to thwart the ordinance change.
The stances of Cole-McFadden, Clement, Farad Ali and Bill Bell had been a mystery—"Don't play poker with Bill Bell," one political insider jokingly told the Indy—and it was conceivable that any or all of them might vote for the ordinance change.
But in the end, the unanimous vote signaled to Fairway that Durham would not join other North Carolina cities that had bitten on the industry's vague promises of economic development, the alleged crime-fighting power of digital billboards and the dubious rewards of partnerships between nonprofits and the billboard company.
The nonprofit angle was key to Fairway's strategy. Although Fairway has routinely given free billboard space to nonprofits, it now hoped for a favor in return. At Monday night's meeting, representatives from many nonprofits lauded their relationship with Fairway and stated digital billboards would only help the groups attract new members and contributions.
Ernie Mills Jr. of the Durham Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that helps the homeless and former substance abusers find employment, said new billboards could create jobs in landscaping and construction for the mission's clients. The mission is less than a mile north of Alston Avenue and N.C. 147, a nexus of billboards that have advertised Crown Royal and, yes, the Dixie Gun and Knife Show.
"It would pull traffic off the interstate for local businesses that employ our clientele," Mills said. "Fairway has been tremendous partners with the Durham Rescue Mission."
However, Mills' contentions were speculative. Fairway General Manager Paul Hickman told Cole-McFadden that of the 25 people employed by the company in the Triangle, none were homeless—none even lived in Durham. (Fairway's regional office is in Raleigh.)
Woodard said he had spoken with several nonprofits that had free billboards, and none could link an increase in donations or membership to these outdoor ads. And many other nonprofits, including the Eno River Association, opposed digital billboards. Association President Milo Pyne told council that "we see no benefit in changing ordinance. The benefits to nonprofits are oversold."
However, in June, many Durham nonprofits that received free billboard space from Fairway tried to sell Mayor Bell on the benefits of digital billboards for their groups. City Council members received the same letters, but these were sent in envelopes addressed from the billboard company. And it appears Fairway coached the nonprofits on the letter's talking points by providing them with a sample letter.
A June 8 letter from the Museum of Life and Science and signed by Julie Ketner Rigby, the museum's vice president for external relations, noted that "Fairway was a valued partner" in helping the museum publicize its new Dinosaur Trail exhibit. "The Museum and other nonprofits will benefit from the proposed digital billboard opportunity," the letter said.
Nonprofits receive free space but pay for the printing of the billboard message. With digital billboards, "this cost is eliminated and resources are available for our mission," the letter reads.
Hickman told the Indy nonprofits supported the ordinance change because Fairway would donate one 8-second spot each minute to public service announcements, including messages from nonprofits. "They know it benefits their business," Hickman said.
(However, as city staff explained Monday night, government cannot regulate those public service announcements or their content. In fact, Fairway can't be compelled to offer those slots at all.)
Hickman told the Indy the nonprofits took the lead on sending the pro-billboard letter: "Every nonprofit that wrote a letter contacted Fairway and said 'Can we help you?' And we said, 'You can make a phone call or write a letter, if you want. It's up to you.'"
Yet the museum letter went beyond its personal interest in publicizing its exhibits. It echoed Fairway's previous pitch to community groups and city commissions about the effectiveness of billboards in publicizing Amber and Silver alerts: "The opportunities for Amber and Silver alerts are all important considerations for this proposal," the letter read.
Asked why the Museum of Life and Science would be concerned about Amber and Silver alerts, Hickman replied that nonprofits could have obtained that information from many sources, including the company's website. "I don't know why they wrote what they wrote," he said.
Fairway should know: Rigby said the company provided the museum with information about digital billboards and that she "picked and chose" from the points listed in that template. She said she has seen other nonprofits' letters. "They are all a little bit different."
Rigby said the letter was intended to "point out information" about the value of its partnership with Fairway, adding that the museum board had not taken a position on the billboard ordinance. Yet after the Indy reported the contents of the letter last week, a backlash against the museum prompted its president and CEO, Barry Van Deman, to send a letter Monday to City Council re-emphasizing that the board was staying out of the fray.
It was after 11 Monday night when council put the kibosh on digital billboards in the city limits. Given the unpredictability of the Durham County Board of Commissioners—and the perceived coziness between some of the commissioners and K&L Gates—it's unclear if county leaders will follow the city's lead next week.
After the vote, K&L Gates, Fairway and several billboard proponents gathered in a circle, heads lowered, as if burying a loved one.
Billboard opponents filed out, buoyed by their victory.
"[Fairway] had two years to get community support," John Schelp, an outspoken billboard opponent told council earlier in the evening. "That support failed."