by Lisa Sorg
This post was updated at 10 a.m., Saturday, July 11.
Like an itinerant preacher, Patrick Byker has scoured nearly every corner of Durham proselytizing the gospel according to Fairway Outdoor Advertising: That billboards are selfless benefactors for communities and add to the common good.
So it’s not surprising that on his tour to convince Durham leaders of billboards’ healing qualities, he stopped by his old stomping grounds: The City-County Crime Cabinet, for which he served as secretary from 1997 to 1999.
Byker, now an attorney with K&L Gates, was one of several hired guns for Fairway Outdoor Advertising, which is lobbying to amend the city-county Unified Development Ordinance to allow digital billboards, among other changes.
Of the 89 billboards in Durham County, 47 are owned by Fairway. Under Fairway/ K&L Gates’ proposal, one quarter of Durham’s billboards—22—would be converted to digital, meaning a static, not flashing, message would change every eight seconds. While Byker showed the public service aspect of the signs—examples included “We Salute Our Heroes” from a billboard in South Carolina—he also played the fear card.
Byker criticized the Amber Alert/ Silver Alert system, which displays information on signs over North Carolina’s interstates, for only telling the public to call 5-1-1. (That number gives callers the same information distributed to the media. The N.C. Department of Transportation regulates the signs.)
“I don’t think it’s effective,” Byker said. “We can put a face on a billboard.”
However, an N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety official told the Indy that “If you put too much information on signs, that’s a distraction.”
According to the Crime Control department, since January, it has issued 11 Amber Alerts and 113 Silver Alerts statewide. (The Web site lists data through May; no Amber Alerts were issued during that time in the Triangle.)
Byker further pushed his case that digital billboards could help Durham with locating lost elderly people through a Silver Alert system broadcast on digital billboards. He cited one estimate (not by the U.S. Census) that 22 percent of Durham’s population will be older than 55 by 2011. The message: Soon we will be old and doddering. Who will help us? Digital billboards.
“This is an opportunity for Durham to be a regional leader for the Silver Alert system,” Byker said.
Of the 100 Silver Alerts issued through May, four of them were in Durham County. Wake County had 9; Orange County also had four.
Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez chimed in: “This is my professional opinion, not a personal one. There is no indication billboards cause accidents. It could only help in getting law enforcement message across.”
As for the aesthetics, he said, “It’s in the eye of the beholder,” adding “Either we agree with this company or the one in the future if we sell the billboards.” (Actually, the city and county could disagree with any company seeking to amend the UDO.)
County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who co-chairs the Crime Cabinet with City Councilman Howard Clement, asked Byker how much information people can absorb in eight seconds.
“I think it’s as much time as a person needs,” he replied. He offered no studies to back up his assertion.
Reckhow also quizzed Byker on how drivers would remember the information on the billboards, which can include the name of the missing person, the description and license plate number of a car and a phone number.
"Their passengers could take it down," Byker replied.
Nearly three-quarters of Durham County commuters drive alone, according to the N.C. Commerce Department. This number does not account for people who are not driving to work.
Nearly 15 citizens’ and neighborhood groups oppose amending the ordinance to allow digital billboards.
City Councilman Howard Clement, a member of the Crime Cabinet, was apparently swayed by Byker’s presentation: “There is new information today. I think we need a massive re-education. So far, the issue has been one-sided. We’re not getting a balanced presentation.”
However, no community members or billboard opponents were allowed to offer their presentations.
For other blog posts on the billboard issue, go to our archives.