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Digital ads to light up Chicago airports, but does city risk becoming a midwest Vegas?

Midway Airport

Midway Airport

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Updated: May 12, 2013 2:11PM

O’Hare and Midway airports would enter the digital advertising age — and “catch up” with airports around the world — thanks to a pair of lucrative contracts approved by the City Council on Wednesday.

Four months after getting the go-ahead to put up 34 digital billboards adjacent to Chicago area expressways, Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the go-ahead to do the same and more at O’Hare and Midway.

Aldermen approved a pair of five-year agreements with Clear Channel Airports and JC Decaux — with five more years of renewal options for each — that have the potential to enrich both clout-heavy companies while transforming the look and feel of Chicago airports as well as the O’Hare people mover system that’s about to be extended and double its passenger volume.

Opposition to both deals came from Aldermen Bob Fioretti (2nd) and John Arena (45th), who led the opposition to Emanuel’s expressway billboard plan.

Arena has warned that electronic billboards “everywhere you turn” at O’Hare would make Chicago a sleazy Midwest replica of Las Vegas.

He has also objected to Emanuel’s decision to forge ahead with JCDecaux, when the French bus shelter operator that has a piece of the expressway deal was the only respondent to a contract that may well be amended down the road to include billboards on the roadways leading to and from O’Hare.

For now, the contract authorizes Decaux to install outdoor advertising at O’Hare —including “exterior wrapping and interior displays” on people mover cars and stations — in exchange for 50 percent of advertising revenues.

Fioretti has voiced similar aesthetic concerns. He has also questioned whether ClearChannel, a company that had threatened to block the expressway billboard deal, got airport business as a “trade-off” to drop its opposition.

On Wednesday, Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino brushed aside talk of sweetheart deals and Chicago turning into a Midwest Vegas.

“We have advertising today. It just replaces static with digital. We were getting no money for any outdoor advertising. We’re gonna go from zero revenues to revenue sharing of over 50 percent. It’s a good deal for us in terms of how do we continue to bring in more non-airline revenues to keep the cost of our airport competitive so we can compete globally for more traffic,” Andolino said.

“It’s not an insider deal by any means. It was competitively bid and they responded to that. There were other outdoor elements that were available to people to bid on. People chose not to because they felt the real benefit was just the people mover.”

Asked why O’Hare roadways were excluded from the request for proposal that attracted just one bidder in JC Decaux, Andolino said doing otherwise would have required the “cumbersome” process of filing a new planned development for O’Hare’s 7,000 acres, including newly-annexed land.

The commissioner argued that airports around the world have already made the switch to digital and that O’Hare needs to play “catch up.”

The Clear Channel agreement includes a minimum annual guarantee of $8.6 million or a percentage fee of 71 percent of sales, whichever is greater.

In exchange, Clear Channel would be free to take full advantage of what City Hall calls the “ongoing evolution” of digital media.

Highlights include: a 15-foot digital globe suspended from the ceiling of Terminal 3; 350 digital screens; interactive digital directories; power-charging stations and virtual concierges for air travelers; recycling centers with 70-inch digital screens; vertical “living walls” with “foliage and water elements; rotating exhibit areas for Chicago area museums; AIRChicago radio and AIRChicago magazine and a free, location-based mobile app for frequent fliers.

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