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County sees profit in paid ads

Plans include putting advertisements on buses. A step further would be selling space in public parks. Critics worry about the aesthetics of logo litter.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003


BROOKSVILLE -- Officials looking to seize on every penny of potential revenue in today's struggling economy are aiming to sell advertising space on county assets to private interests.

Hardly a new idea for governments, the ads would be a first for Hernando.

Advocates say plans to place ads on the THE Bus fleet, the county's new public transportation workhorses, as well as on fencing at county athletic fields, will defray expenses and possibly lead to expanded services. Critics, however, see the plans as just more logo litter -- the unsightly commercialization of public space.

Helping spur the initiative is County Commissioner Robert Schenck, who vowed during his campaign last year to find creative ways to keep taxes from ripping into the public's pocket. To Schenck, whatever damage advertisements do to looks is minimal and is made up for by the money they generate.

"In my mind, it's a small enough trade-off to get some additional revenue," Schenck said. "Both THE Bus and the parks have an intrinsic value to the public, and advertisements do not take away from that."

Fellow Commissioner Diane Rowden opposes the plans, particularly as county code enforcement officials are getting more strict when it comes to the appearance of private property. What right does the county have, she asks, to tell people they can't put up yard sale signs while it goes about selling the right to advertise on buses and at parks?

Not only what she calls the "double standard" worries Rowden; given what she says is the trivial amount of money the advertising plans will bring in, the aesthetic costs are too high.

"It's going to trash ... the place," Rowden said. "We are going to junk up the county."

One area where the trade-off might be of great benefit, however, is in making it easier for the disabled to use THE Bus, said county planner Dennis Dix.

Since service began in October, Dix said, getting the disabled from their homes to the bus routes has emerged as critical, and greater accessibility is a paramount need.

One possibility is to purchase vans to shuttle the disabled and homebound to and from bus stops. The federal government would pay for the vehicles and for the bulk of operating expenses. The county would have to come up with the remainder, roughly $25,000 annually for each of the two vans that would be in service. Rules require a third vehicle to be in reserve.

By charging $300 a month for an ad on the side or rear of THE Bus, it's expected $25,000 could be brought in every year, Dix said, enough to pay for operating one of the vans. Also being considered is the sale of ad space inside buses and at planned bus stop shelters, though those approaches are expected to raise much less money.

At last week's County Commission meeting, board members struggled to decide where to allow the advertising. Finally, it was decided by a 4-1 vote to sell space on the backs of the buses and on the sides above and behind the rear wheels, but not on windows. (Current technologies allow see-through applications). Rowden's was the single "no" vote.

The plan allows for THE Bus' own large logo, situated in the middle of the vehicles' sides, to remain, Dix said.

"The identity of THE Bus will still remain intact," he said.

At parks, 4-by-8-foot advertisements would be sold on fencing at county baseball fields. The ads would face the infield. Over five years, the plan isexpected to the scheme would bring in $50,375. Current operating costs for the parks system stands at $1.28-million for a single year.

"$50,000 is not much," said Parks and Recreation Department director Pat Fagan. "But Commissioner Schenck feels like every dime counts."

Fagan said he has refrained for 25 years from allowing ads in the parks, preferring them free of commercialization. Now, however, athletic leagues are clamoring for more infrastructure, and his resources, both in money and staffing, are thinning.

"Everybody is asking for everything," Fagan said. "There are only so many dollars the county has. We have got to look at ways to secure additional revenue."

No final decision has been made on park advertising, a plan Fagan said he is exploring with regret. Sharing Fagan's sentiment is Commissioner Nancy Robinson.

"The ideal is never to commercialize the public environment," she said.

Yet, the commissioner said she, like Fagan, recognizes how valuable any new stream of money coming into government is these days. With the economy sputtering and the specter of Tallahassee forcing counties to shoulder more of the burden of offering services, she said, it's time to try new things or consider tax increases.

"It's reasonable if you do it in what I would call the most aesthetic fashion," Robinson said of the ad plans. "I think it can be done in a nice way."

-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com .

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