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City wants ads on pay-and-display boxes, trash cans — and more

Pay-and-display parking boxes could sport ads raise revenue for city.  |  Dom Najolia~Sun-Times

Pay-and-display parking boxes could sport ads to raise revenue for the city. | Dom Najolia~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 10, 2011 9:51AM

Chicago’s 4,700 pay-and-display boxes have become a symbol of the 75-year, $1.15 billion deal that privatized parking meters and, many believe, gave taxpayers the short end of the stick.

Now, those boxes could be plastered with advertising and turned into cash cows for the city.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $6.3 billion budget assumes $25 million in revenues from “municipal marketing” and sponsorship deals that turn city assets into money-makers.

Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott, who will lead the effort, says pay-and-display boxes top the list, which also includes trash compactors and electric light boxes.

“Those 4,700 pay boxes have some economic value in using that real estate. The city reserved the right to sell advertising on those as part of the transaction with Morgan Stanley” that privatized the 36,000 meters, Scott said.

“There’s also some real interest in those [400] Big Belly [solar trash compactors downtown] and selling the rights to advertise on those. That income stream is also the property of the city. And we’ve had encouraging conversations with ad agencies about electric light boxes that operate street lights.”

Emanuel noted that the CTA has sold advertising on its buses for years, providing “a great show of how you can market and generate revenue so you can deliver better services.”

“If that’s good for the CTA overall, it can also be good for the city,” the mayor said.

Asked if he’s concerned about turning Chicago into a giant billboard, Emanuel said, “Rather than worry about that side, there are some places where advertising actually may be a beautification,” given the condition of the infrastructure.

In 2005, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley hired a consulting firm to draft a game plan for “municipal marketing,” including the potentially lucrative idea of selling naming rights to the Chicago Skyway.

Five years later, Daley tried to launch the program by turning bridge houses along the Chicago River over to private companies during major holidays to decorate and display their corporate monikers.

None of it ever happened.

Now, Scott is under the gun to raise the $25 million the mayor is counting on in 2012.

Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based marketing expert who specializes in the field of sports, said the city “should be able to achieve that number and higher as they ramp up,” but not necessarily next year unless the marketing deals are “front-loaded.”

Ganis also advised the city to follow the lead of hospitals and universities by approaching foundations and wealthy individuals interested in putting their names on high-profile assets before soliciting commercial businesses.

“Do it in a way that’s more civically acceptable. We already have the names of people on buildings. Take the Jardine Water Filtration plant. If that became the Crown Water Filtration plant, it’s already accepted. To slap Coca Cola’s name on it changes the equation,” Ganis said.

The bottom line is that it’s better to offer “fewer items at a higher price” than to put a “For Rent” sign on scores of city assets.

“In the downtown area, pay-and-display boxes will be of value. But, if the bid package includes all the meter boxes, it’ll have de minimis value. City trucks will have value because they’re moving around the city. But, slapping an ad on every garbage can will have limited utility because there are many areas where they’re just not worth very much,” he said.

A “management ordinance” tied to the mayor’s budget empowers Scott to identify specific city assets to market, find “desirable potential commercial partners” and negotiate specific terms.

The ordinance specifically precludes the CFO from entering into any deal that “effectuates the sale of a city asset.”

Scott said she plans to start by convening a committee of city departments — including Law and the Board of Ethics — to determine “what’s appropriate and not appropriate.”

The plan will be guided, in part, by what “governments around the world” are doing.

“Paris has developed rental revenue from its bike stations. In Rome, the Coliseum was restored by allowing a private company to put advertising on tickets. In exchange, that company funded 100 percent of the restoration,” Scott said.

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