News: To Add Advertising or Not to Add Advertising?

By Anne Newport Royall

The meeting really started almost ten minutes early, with an animated discussion between two combatants, who really belong on the same side.  Acting Planning Director Richard Lorber was going at it with DecoBikes CEO Colby Reese over the signs being used to present their cases.  At issue?  Should the City of Miami Beach allow advertising on the now-empty side of the bright-green DecoBike Station?

“Look at the size of that” Lober complained when pointing to the very large bus shelter poster promoting the movie Transformers 3, “and the minimal Apple one.”

Reese could take issue with Lorber’s exhibits, too.  The provocative photo of a wet James Franco even caught Mayor Matti Bower’s attention.  On her way home, the Mayor pronounced general advertising as “all pollution” and said she “votes against it all the time”.  “Officially, I have no comment, except to say I am very happy the program is successful”. And with that she was off and the room began to fill with more staff than residents.  It was a meeting with  South Beach neighbors to obtain community input regarding the proposal for DecoBike advertising.

Lorber began with copious praise for  DecoBike a first of it’s kind in the nation bike-sharing program. “But this meeting is not about the program, it’s about the advertising”, he said and provided a history of the City’s blanket prohibition against general advertising.

While the City Code allows for building facades to have simple signs promoting the business and accessory uses contained within, you can not just put up a sign for Diet Coke in your storefront window.  There is only one permitted billboard in all of Miami Beach, on the Gateway Center at the South East Corner of 41st Street and Alton Road, which was litigated to exist.

In other places where they have blanket prohibitions on general advertising, Lorber explained that a common exemption is when there is a public purpose involved.  Traditionally, that has included bus shelters, as public transportation is a public benefit, always subsidized and always looking for revenue.  The companies that come to town to build and maintain  the shelters for government bus lines, burden the construction costs.  They do so in exchange for a portion of the advertising revenue they earn from the bus shelters.  It’s feel good, creative and has become a fact of life in all urbania.

In Miami Beach, the code that controls the strong prohibition on general advertising was amended to permit bus shelter advertisements, Lorber said.

On Lincoln Road, directories were installed that is one-side map ‘”Not very current”, Lorber admitted,  and other side large, bus shelter size advertising.  At the time they were installed, the City deemed the directory as having a public benefit and amended the code once again.

DecoBikes came to the City and asked to put advertising on their baskets, and the City said yes, and amended the code once again to permit that.

Lately, many new ideas and entrepreneurs have come to the City wanting to exploit its relatively advertising-free environment with advertising. All, they purport, with a public purpose.  Wrap vacant storefronts with advertising, or allow property owners to rent their windows to electronic billboards to offset high carrying costs provides a public benefit:   a more active, better looking pedestrian experience than peering through the dirty, naked windows of another empty retail space.

Or placing large, message – laden bins on street corners to collect recyclables. That has a public benefit, too.

Lorber says the City is afraid to weaken it’s blanket ban, for fear the City becomes open to all manner of advertising, including interstate-style billboards.

“The policy makers said, “Go out and get input”, Lorber said resting his case.

“Count the mayor as undecided!” quipped Denis Russ of the Miami Beach Development Corporation.

But the stakes were real for all involved.  Would the City be willing to risk opening up the City to more advertising for the sake of supporting DecoBikes? Or should another way around the financial problem DecoBike foresees with the deal it operates under now.  Currently, the City gets between 12% and 15% of gross operating revenue and 25% of all advertising revenue.  “Those are big numbers” Reese crowed, but in the heavily service-dependant business with 24 employees, the net, it seems, is not so good. And not sustainable.

Assistant City Manager Jorge Gomez tried to keep the meeting focused on the advertising:  where it would go and where it would not.  Perhaps not every one of the 100 or so stations planned when the system is fully rolled-out would have the advertising. Putting advertising in highly residential areas, next to schools or houses of worship “may not make sense” Reese agreed. “It’s a work in progress” in DecoBike formally asking the City for a number of kiosks to include in any advertising program, and right now that numbered hovered around 40%.

The mayor of Collins Park, Ray Breslin looked to differentiate the ads buses and taxis have, although those are considered “moving targets, like the bikes, which do allow advertising on the baskets” according to Gomez.  He then said what DecoBike was asking for was more like the bus shelters, “Do you think that is a good thing?” seeking to solicit a vote from Breslin yes or no. “A tasteful ad is insignificant compared to the busses” that scream advertising, so much so they hardly look like a bus anymore, Breslin decried.

Then it was Reese’s turn to make his case to the single handful of residents who were there to weigh in and have their vote counted in the Great Advertising Debate of 2011. Reese sees “No can of worms” like the City proclaims, as the bikes are clearly public transportation and is “not window wraps or recycle bins”.   When counter-debating the size and the impact of his proposals and bus shelters he highlighted ’huge differences” between a sticker in the side of his kiosk, to a double sided channel lit bus shelter sign. Then he gave an impassioned plea on the state of affairs of most public transportation:  it costs money and is heavily subsidized. Miami Beach makes money from their public transportation:  DecoBike. At the end of the day to Reese, its a matter of the bottom line, a numbers game to make the system work.  Advertising was just one idea, and he will pursue it until he can pursue no more.  Then he will try something else. It’s a numbers game, and he aims to win.

South of Fifth Activist Frank Del Vecchio had already weighed in to planning staff and the mayor and members of the commission and broadcasts the thoughts of many, “Please register me as opposed to advertising on the DecoBike bike rental kiosks but in favor of exploring other avenues to keep the DecoBike rental program solvent. Not a single resident who e-mailed me intends to go to tonight’s presentation.  I am not going.  I see no purpose in being subjected to a sales pitch from the vendor”

Dennis Russ started in with a major soliloquy as to the benefits of this “extraordinary effort” Keen and green Decobike fits perfectly into his vision of a more urban, less carbon footprint neighborhood for his beloved Flamingo Park. Russ came looking or a fight, expecting DecoBikes to present a more European and Canadian Model for the supplemental advertising, where the kiosks sit side-by-side lighted bus-shelter type advertising frames. “ I thought you were going to put billboards on top of the racks!” Russ said, then launching into more platitudes for the DecoBike programs and its high level of operations.

“That being said, I can not support advertising, even on this modest footprint”’ he sighed.

“So Dennis, you’re saying make DecoBikes financially viable in ways other than advertising? Gomez prodded, looking to see in which box Russ’ vote should go in.

Aaron Sugarman and his wife, the ever-compliant Tammy Tibbles share views similar to those expressed by Breslin.  “If we don’t allow advertising on the kiosks, we should not allow the advertising on the bus shelters” he stated, while his wife gushed about how DecoBike “Makes me smile, because all the people riding a DecoBike are smiling, and not driving around frustrated looking for a parking space.”

“I feel ashamed that DecoBike has to come here begging on their hands and knees” for the money they need to operate, she admitted, “DecoBike improves my quality of life”.

Here’s your chance to vote: The City of Miami Beach Planning Department staff is in holding meetings to obtain community input regarding the proposal for Decobike Advertising, as directed by the Mayor and Commission. Monday, Sept. 12 at 6:00 PM, Decobike Kiosk Advertising Proposal/North Beach Community, North Shore Youth Center, 501 72nd Street

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