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Editorial: Cross the T’s before the billboards rise

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 8, 2013 6:21AM

The City Council has one more chance to take a careful look before giant digital billboards sprout up in neighborhoods along the expressways. Before casting a final vote Wednesday, aldermen should ensure they’re not entering into a deal they’ll regret later.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan calls for building 34 image-changing billboards on municipal land as part of a 20-year deal that would bring in an estimated $270 million. If all goes well, the city gets a new revenue stream, including $15 million in the first year, which would go a long way toward meeting an $18 million target for municipal advertising that the city has already budgeted.

Emanuel spokeswoman Kathleen Strand says the deal has been carefully vetted. Ten departments in city government spent 14 months working it out, she said.

But before aldermen sign on the dotted line, they should ponder these issues:

† Twenty years is a long time. The city argues the billboard company needs 20 years to assure a return on its investment. But an earlier escape clause would give the city a chance to rework the deal if it’s unhappy with the results.

† Until the billboards — which can be up to 100 feet tall — are erected, it’s hard to visualize how they might change the image of the city and the quality of life for nearby residents. People already are complaining to their aldermen about existing digital billboards.

† The whole point of zoning rules is to protect property owners from neighboring projects they don’t want. But the billboard ordinance has no such protections.

† What happens if it turns out this deal gives the city too small a share of revenues? The city’s record in this area worries Ald. John Arena (45th), for one. “The only thing we have expertise at is undervaluing our assets and giving them away,” he says.

The city shouldn’t pass up chances at new revenue. But it also must make sure it strikes the best deal it can get.

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