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    Publishers offer compromise on newspaper racks

    In response to a city code limiting placement of newspaper boxes, area publications propose replacing all the boxes with modular, uniform racks.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Part of this city's urban landscape -- the multicolored mishmash of news racks that offer publications from the St. Petersburg Times to RV Shopper -- is poised for a metamorphosis.

    A group of 65 Tampa Bay area publishers, including the Times and the Tampa Tribune, is working on a plan to replace the rows of news racks with uniform, modular racks that hold up to 16 publications each.

    Assuming the City Commission approves it next month, the plan would conclude two years of negotiations between the publishers and city planners. The majority of commissioners seem satisfied with the proposal.

    "I'm really glad there's been a compromise," said City Commissioner Whitney Gray. "I think it's great that all the publishers can come together in a group and work on that."

    Discussions with the publishers began after a city code was adopted in 1999 that affected news racks. The code encouraged more modular racks, and city planners later required the new racks to be separated by 300 feet.

    The publishers objected to the 300-foot distance, because of the narrowness of some city streets and the proximity of some existing groups of racks. They flooded the city with more than 300 requests for waivers of the rules. The city agreed not to enforce its new rules until a compromise could be worked out.

    Under the proposed rules, the subject of a hearing last week, any location with three or more news racks clustered together would be replaced by a modular unit. The modular racks are expected to cost the publishers from $200,000 to $500,000, said Times director of circulation Tommie McLeod.

    But in a compromise with the publishers, the new racks could be as close as 100 feet apart, said Cyndi Tarapani, assistant city planning director.

    The exact color scheme hasn't been hashed out, Tarapani said. One new box installed last week at U.S. 19 at the entrance to the Tropic Hills subdivision is beige.

    Still, the changes didn't appeal to several residents who told commissioners last week they should be stricter.

    "The 300-foot rule is a great rule and I think it ought to be adopted," said David Campbell, who is involved with the Coalition of Clearwater Homeowner Associations. "A 300-feet separation allows for three groups of news racks per city block. I cannot fathom why we have to cater to the newspaper industry to have door-to-door news rack service."

    Commissioner Bill Jonson also was concerned about the spacing. He asked Times representatives last week to prove why a 300-foot requirement between the racks would not work.

    Alison Steele, a St. Petersburg attorney for the Times, told commissioners that restricting the locations of news racks too severely could lead to a legal challenge. She said newspapers have constitutional, free-speech protections to distribute.

    "Ordinarily, the St. Petersburg Times and other publishers have litigated ordinances of this kind," Steele said. "You have one now that the publishers are telling you is acceptable."

    City Attorney Pam Akin suggested the new news rack rules were a good compromise that would avoid litigation.

    "I think we have reached an agreement with them and come up with a well-structured ordinance that meets their needs, as well as our needs," she said.

    Publishers are sharing the costs and negotiating which publications will be in each box. The group also is voluntarily installing new, modular racks in Tampa and St. Petersburg, McLeod said.

    Free publications such as Auto Shopper or the Apartment Finder Blue Book are charged $250 for spaces, or $125 if they can split a space with another publication, McLeod said. Larger publications that are for sale, such as the Times and Tribune, are paying about $450 per rack and orchestrating the project.

    Some publishers have mixed feelings.

    "Our yellow boxes were basically our signature and our branding, and you don't want to lose that," said John D. Ferenchik, who publishes the Real Estate Book in the Tampa Bay area with his wife. "But we're not losing the positions, and that's the important thing. We're still going to be out there. I think we can make it work."

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