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City panel advances bill for digital billboards on Kennedy Expy.

A new digital billboard is shown Monday Dec. 12 2011 along Interstate 80 west LarkAvenue Joliet Ill. Twenty more are

A new digital billboard is shown Monday, Dec. 12, 2011, along Interstate 80 west of Larkin Avenue in Joliet, Ill. Twenty more are pending. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 5, 2013 6:19AM



The Kennedy Expressway could have up to a dozen digital billboards — five within a four-block stretch between North Ave. and Armitage — under a 20-year, $270 million deal advanced by a joint City Council committee Monday that, critics warned, sells taxpayers short and could be unconstitutional.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) questioned why Mayor Rahm Emanuel chose to let Interstate Outdoor Advertising and JCDecaux build the 34 digital billboards on city-owned property adjacent to expressways — and share advertising revenues with

the city — instead of building the $30 million network on its own and pocketing all of the money.

“I take issue when people say we’re not capable of setting up something ourselves. I heard the same thing with the parking meters. The former manager was up here saying, `We don’t know how to do this stuff. We don’t know how to buy pay boxes.

Therefore, we have to give it away to somebody else,’ “ Waguespack said.

Other aldermen raised aesthetic concerns.

“I want to make sure that, in one fell-swoop, we don’t sell out our taxpayers and, at the same time, destroy our skyline,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who briefly

delayed the final vote by questioning whether enough aldermen were present to constitute a quorum.

Although digital billboards would go dark overnight, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) warned, “You can see these things miles away….I hope my colleagues will understand the calls you’re gonna get…on your voicemails when you come into work.”

James R. Daly, an attorney representing billboard competitors, warned that the billboard deal was on shaky legal ground.

“It restricts speech within that 500 foot area adjacent to the expressways except for the city and its chosen partner….The city is favoring itself to the exclusion of all other companies and all other property owners. In order to do that, you need a compelling reason,” he said.

Despite those concerns and more, the Budget and Zoning Committees agreed to let a partnership that includes Chicago’s bus shelter operator build digital signs up to 100 feet high near expressways protected by a seven-year exclusivity clause.

In exchange, the joint-venture would guarantee Chicago taxpayers $15 million in 2013 and $154 million over the 20-year life of the contract. The city hopes to generate as much as $270 million over 20 years through a revenue sharing arrangement that

starts with a 50 percent cut of the first $25 million.

The contract includes a nine-year renewal option another point of contention with aldermen, who amended the contract to require City Council approval of the extension.

A map distributed to aldermen identifies 38 potential billboard locations, four of them alternates. They include: 12 on the Kennedy; 10 on the Dan Ryan; six apiece on the Stevenson and Eisenhower Expressways and one each on the Bishop Ford,

Chicago Skyway, Illinois Tollway and Edens Expy.

When Waguespack complained about the five signs along a four-block stretch of the Kennedy, Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott stressed that the city’s plan calls for “replacing three unsightly” traditional billboards with one digital sign.

During more than four hours of testimony, Scott stressed how the billboard deal differs from the widely-despised parking meter lease.

The city is not selling off an asset. It’s creating a new one, she said. And while Chicago Parking Meters LLC must be compensated whenever parking spaces are taken out of commission, Interstate Outdoor and JCDecaux will not be paid for lost ad revenue.

But for all the differences, there is one similarity: the City Council has already approved a 2013 budget that counts on $18 million in municipal marketing revenue.

So, aldermen had little choice but to go along.



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