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    Despite deadline, lone billboard stands

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


    LARGO -- It was supposed to be gone by now.

    In April 1999, city officials and billboard advertisers reached an agreement to take down all 21 of the billboards in the city's two redevelopment areas by October 2000.

    But one is still here, a billboard above the NAPA Auto Parts store at 380 Seminole Blvd. that on one side directs drivers to Stacey's Buffet and on the other side promotes Largo Medical Center.

    City officials spotted it last month as they drove around the redevelopment areas to make sure all of the billboards were down.

    "The billboard needs to be removed," said Ric Goss, Largo's Community Development Director.

    A real estate representative for the company that owns the billboard said Monday it will be down within 30 to 45 days.

    "It certainly needs to come down," said Nick Harrington, who works for Lamar Advertising.

    City officials said they initially were told that the billboard had been removed. Harrington said another company that had owned that billboard incorrectly told the city staff it was gone. That company, Whiteco, was bought by Chancellor Media. Lamar Advertising bought Chancellor Media in June 1999.

    "We didn't realize it still existed," Harrington said of the billboard.

    The city could sue Lamar if it does not take down the billboard, Goss said. Refusing to remove the billboard also would affect the status of other billboards in Largo owned by Lamar, Goss said.

    The city has been trying to get rid of billboards for a decade.

    In 1990, the city passed an ordinance that gave billboard companies seven years to take down all their signs throughout Largo. Billboards were a blight on the community, city commissioners said when they agreed to the ordinance. But when the deadline came, all 86 of the billboards that were up in 1990 were still there.

    The lack of compliance began a nearly two-year effort by Largo officials to strike a deal with the companies to, at the very least, take down the signs in the city's two redevelopment areas, which primarily make up downtown Largo. City officials took heed of costly legal battles between billboard companies and other municipalities and avoided a court case.

    The billboard companies agreed to take down the signs in downtown Largo. In exchange, the city would not ask for the removal of any of the 98 other billboards in Largo.

    City officials think the quiet disappearance of most of the downtown billboards has greatly improved the look of the area.

    "It really cleaned it up," said Vice Mayor Jean Halvorsen. "I don't miss them at all."

    Commissioner Marty Shelby agrees that Clearwater-Largo Road and Missouri-Seminole Boulevard are much more attractive now, but he wishes the city had worked to remove many of the other billboards around town.

    "Are there other parts of the city that could stand such visual improvement? Absolutely," said Shelby, who voted against the 1999 compromise.

    - Information from Times files was used in this report.

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