For the Republican convention, St. Paul considers wrapping its (typically empty) skyways in ads

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St. Paul is contemplating plastering ads on the sides of its skyways during the Republican National Convention, the PiPress reports. The purpose: to raise funds for kiosks that would help orient RNC visitors to the city’s skyway system. It does seem better orientation could benefit St. Paul — whose streets, former Gov. Jesse Ventura once told a national TV audience, were laid out by drunken Irishmen. For instance, the Web site downtownstpaul.com offers up a skyway map with a come-on that John McCain might take offense at (“Get Your Bearings!”) and it turns out to be a bad link.

On the other hand, what’s there to get your bearings to? That was the question raised in a devastating shoe-leather survey earlier this year by MPR’s Bob Collins, who found the Capital City’s publicly owned skyway system to be one corridor after another of “For Lease” signs. Collins’ on-air colleague could name only two functioning skyway-level nightspots: a Subway and a Minute Clinic. The occasion for Collins’ piece: the closing of a Foot Locker, “the last remaining retail store (that doesn’t sell lottery tickets or coffee)” in the city-built, skyway-level mall called Town Square.

St. Paul might want to hit up the state lottery people for a skyway ad right away: They’re open to innovative marketing techniques like spray-chalking ads onto sidewalks in St. Louis Park. That method is akin to the stick-on floor ads in the privately owned skyways of Minneapolis, a city that is currently paying to have its boarded buildings painted with the images of windows — an approach borrowed from Gary, Ind. (which may in turn have borrowed it from Civil War-era Moscow).

But the most analogous media to skyway window ads, as the PiPress notes, is the wrap ad, in which an innovative 3M material covers a bus, windows and all, with a corporate message. One of these gems from the Minnesota Lottery completely covered Metro Transit buses with the most dispiriting color in the rainbow: a lottery ticket’s scratch-off gray. Pinprick holes are supposed to allow riders to see out, but more often prevent riders from seeing their stops, or the passing city, for that matter. Complaints over the years led Metro Transit to finally adopted a half-measure of covering a maximum of half the window space on a bus or train with advertising. (Last year Seattle went all the way and banned advertisements covering windows.)

Then there is the problem — which would affect skyways as it does transit — of people on the outside not being able to see in. The National Center for Transit Research found that wrap ads created security problems on buses. There is a silver lining. “An added, unspoken ‘benefit,'” the NCTR reports, is that “the non-riding public cannot look into buses and see the spare passenger capacity that may exist along some routes, especially during off-peak service hours. A transit system may be viewed as an efficient public operation by virtue of both the public’s ignorance of empty buses as well as the creative method of maximizing revenues. In contrast, other transit systems have been sharply criticized for violating the local community’s trust as a caretaker of public property because of gaudy bus designs that contribute to an overall commercialization of life. Unless specifically exempted, wrapped buses may violate the spirit of anti-billboard ordinances.”

Indeed, wrapping skyways in ads could fly in the face of St. Paul’s strict anti-billboard ordinance. But it really flies in the face of showing off St. Paul’s beautiful, if often unlively, downtown to visitors. Are we showing off a product that’s the subject of local pride, 3M’s ad wrap, at the expense of St. Paul’s locality?