More than 700 communities nationwide prohibit the construction of new billboards. Why? Because billboard control improves community character and quality of life — both of which directly impact local economies. In fact, despite billboard industry claims to the contrary, communities and states that enact tough billboard controls enjoy strong economic growth.
While some signs are necessary to provide direction and index our surroundings, most billboards merely contribute to visual clutter. Fore example, on one section of road in Hampton, Virginia, there were so many signs that a driver going 45 miles per hour would need to read 1,363 words per minutes just to understand all the information. That is five times the normal reading speed of a stationary person!
The billboard industry often claims that controlling outdoor advertising will turn even the most dynamic locale into an economic ghost town. In fact, the undeniable aesthetic improvements to a community that come from controlling billboards actually helps the economy. A five-year study of 35 cities by the Mississippi Research and Development Center concluded, “The way a community looks affects how both residents and visitors feel about it. An attractive community has a better chance at industry, including tourism.”
Moreover, billboards are both a symptom and a cause of urban blight. Pointing out the problems of a heavily traveled, low-income neighborhood, the Wilmington [North Carolina] Journal noted: “Nothing points out the lack of concern for Dawson Street and its citizens more than the numerous billboards that line both sides of the street. Billboards outnumber trees, and abut up against homes and churches…destroying the privacy of both…”
Fewer Signs – It’s a Sign of Growth
Communities can thrive without billboards. Why? Because most billboards have no connection to the local economy. They advertise either national brands or out-of-state products and services. In addition, while billboard owners often pay little or no local taxes on the actual boards, they enjoy high profit margins of 15 – 50 percent on every billboard face they own.
Billboard industry naysayers claim that businesses such as gas stations and eating and drinking establishments would be financially devastated by reducing or eliminating their outdoor advertising. On the contrary, in cities and towns such as Williamsburg, VA, Raleigh, NC, and Houston, TX, the period following implementation of stricter billboard controls and/or bans on new billboard construction was marked by steady growth of sales in those industries.
- In Williamsburg, VA, sales for eating and drinking establishments grew from $48 million in 1988 to $81 million in 1992, three years after billboard controls were toughened. In 1991 alone, total retail sales rose 44 percent despite an ongoing recession.
- In Raleigh, NC, sales for eating and drinking establishments rose from $243 million in 1989, before billboard control, to $307 million in 1992, after controls were introduced, a rise of about 20 percent.
- The total retail sales in Houston, TX, grew over 100 percent from $9 billion in 1981, the year after the Houston City Council prohibited new billboard construction, to about $19 billion by 1992. For eating and drinking establishments alone, the total rose from $908 million in 1981 to $2.1 billion in 1992. That year, the City Council strongly approved a new ordinance with amortization provisions to further reduce the number of billboards.
Billboard Control is Good for Tourism
Billboard control is especially important for communities that depend on tourism. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, travelers spent $541 billion nationwide in 1999. The President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors reported that natural beauty was the most important criteria for adults choosing a site for outdoor recreation. The more a community does to enhance its unique natural, scenic, historic, and architectural assets, the more tourists it attracts.
Consider the following:
- Vermont took down its last billboard in 1975. From 1976-1978, tourism revenues increased by over 50 percent. According to Christopher Barbieri, President of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, “Although there was some initial sensitivity that removing billboards might hurt tourism, it has had the opposite effect. Tourism is up for all businesses large and small.”
- Vermont Country Store founder Lyman Orton said: “The billboard ban provided not only a level playing field for all of us, it opened the roadways to scenic vistas and created more than compensating publicity. The absence of billboards in Vermont is the best billboard for all of the tourist business.”
- Many prime tourist nations prohibit new billboard construction even as their tourism revenues keep rising: Palm Springs and Big Sur, California; Key West, Florida; Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, North Carolina; South Padre Island, Texas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Aspen and Boulder, Colorado; Holland, Michigan; and Portland, Oregon.
- Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont all prohibit billboards statewide and still draw people from around the world to their scenic wonders. The Hawaii Department of Transportation commented that “Tourism is important to the economy of our state and the state’s business community understands the need to protect and preserve the beauty of the islands.”