St. Paul is the undisputed billboard capitol of Minnesota. There are currently 561 super-sized signs lining the streets of the city, according to Scenic St. Paul, which has worked for years to reduce the number of such structures.
Since April, Scenic St. Paul volunteers have been photographing every single one of the billboards. Yesterday, a special screening of these photographs was held during a luncheon gathering at City Hall to bring attention to the issue.
Former city council member Ruby Hunt pointed out that the battle against billboards is not a new development. “It’s nice when they call on the old warhorses to come out and talk about this issue,” she told the audience. “I’ve been involved in this issue for almost 40 years, trying to reduce the blight of billboards in our wonderful city. ”
St. Paul City Council member Russ Stark argued that billboards are not only ugly but dangerous.
“If you think about the purpose of a billboard, it’s to get your attention just long enough so that you read the content on the board,” he said. “If you’re doing that while you’re driving, your eyes are not on the road.”
In 1999, St. Paul enacted a prohibition on the construction of any new billboards. But the city can’t do much about existing structures. Since 2000, the number of billboards has dropped by roughly 50, primarily through landlords voluntarily removing the signs. Ward 2, which includes the city’s West Side and downtown, currently has the largest concentration of billboards with 141. Ward 6, on the city’s East Side, has the fewest with 43.
Gerald Mischke, a Ward 3 resident and Scenic St. Paul volunteer, noted that many neighboring cities (West St. Paul, Mendota Heighs, Golden Valley) have no billboards, while others (Eagan, Roseville, Bloomington) have fewer than 10.
“Even Minneapolis, with a much larger tax base and population [than St. Paul] can only boast about 300 billboards,” Mischke said.
But the prospects for making much headway on the issue would seem grim. St. Paul is already being sued by Clear Channel Outdoor in federal court over a prohibition on 2-D and 3-D billboard-sign extensions enacted in 2006. The case has been pending for more than two years and is likely headed to trial. Any further attempts by the city council to more stringently regulate billboards would likely inspire additional litigation.
When pressed about what might be done to speed up the eradication of the structures, Mischke didn’t have an easy solution. “Obviously they’re not all going to come down over night,” he said.