Dollar Signs: County, city weighing separate plans to monetize city assets | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Dollar Signs: County, city weighing separate plans to monetize city assets

"Every city in this country has some sort of market-based revenue plan."

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If you're one of those people who bristles over corporate names on public structures, like PNC Park or Heinz Field — or you see red over billboards dotting the landscape — then new proposed fund-raising plans by Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh might throw you over the edge.

In an effort to generate additional funds, the two entities are mulling separate plans to allow corporate use of public property.

County Council was expected to take up a proposal Sept. 18 to allow billboards on 38 county-owned parcels. The legislation was pulled, but the plan is to resubmit it, says William McKain, the county's manager.

The proposal, a turn toward commercializing more public assets, is an answer, in part, to the continued decline in federal and state funding flowing to local municipalities. The city, too, is looking at ways it can monetize its assets, and has scheduled an Oct. 17 public hearing in city-council chambers to look at its options.

"Every city in this country has some sort of market-based revenue plan," says Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto. "It varies from city to city in the degree."

For the county, if all locations are approved, the billboard proposal could generate an additional $1 million each year, McKain says. The county's 2012 operating budget is about $730.5 million.

The size of the signs and whether they are traditional or electronic will depend on local rules in the municipalities where the signs would be constructed. All would be new construction. Proposed locations include county land in Pittsburgh, Harmar, North Braddock, East McKeesport, North Fayette, Crescent, Monroeville, Penn Hills, Wilkins, Bethel Park, West Mifflin, Ben Avon, Forrest Hills, Glenfield, Ohio Township, Sharpsburg, Carnegie, Findlay, Clairton, Robinson, Millvale, Ross Township and Rankin.

"We're trying to be creative and generate additional revenue," says Allegheny County Councilor Bob Macey, the chairman of the public-works committee. "I think some things can be done tastefully."

Not everyone is on board with that idea.

At the Sept. 18 meeting, members of civic group Scenic Pittsburgh and several residents tried to dissuade the county from that direction.

"These are intrusive marketing that cannot be turned off," says Nichole Huff, Scenic Pittsburgh's communications director. She notes that once a billboard is permitted, state law makes it very hard to have it removed.

Calling them "short-sighted exploitation," she says billboards don't add much benefit.

"They generate very little taxes and damage property values," she says. "They extract value from the community without returning much."

In a plea to the County Council at the Sept. 18 meeting, Downtown resident John Rohe asked officials to vote against the idea.

"This is not Anytown, U.S.A. Let's bring out the best in Pittsburgh," he said. "Don't do this. Please don't do this."

City officials, too, say they have ruled out outdoor advertising as an option, despite an estimate that it could generate an additional $4 million to $5 million a year for the general fund.

Besides, the city has already fought the billboard battle and won. In 2008, five city councilors sued Lamar Advertising in two separate lawsuits to have a billboard removed from the Grant Street Transportation Center, saying the project was improperly given a zoning permit. A judge eventually agreed and ordered that the sign be removed. It eventually came down in August 2011, after the city and Lamar were sued by Scenic Pittsburgh.

"There is more of a desire to minimize impact than to get the most money," Peduto says. "Pittsburgh has a natural beauty to it that we don't want to take away."

Instead, officials are considering placing ads on city uniforms, in city elevators and in city mailings. They are also looking at ideas like renting out council chambers for weddings or having a technology company sponsor city Wifi access. These options are expected to generate about $2 million in extra cash, Peduto says.

That's a much better way to look at it, Huff says.

"There is room for exploitation, but [the city's] proposal is well crafted," she says. "There is a big difference between putting an ad in a newsletter and an ad on a billboard."

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