City council looks to cash in on digital billboards

City council approved flipping the switch Wednesday to test digital L.E.D illuminated billboards, reversing the current ban on the advertising technology in Ottawa.

City staff recommended the two-year, three-billboard study because the digital billboards cost less to maintain and can generate more revenues for the city which is increasingly trying to use other means than taxation to pay the bills.

Digital billboards are an attractive option from a business perspective because they don’t need to be changed manually and because they can service multiple clients at a time. They also don’t require external illumination, and use low-cost L.E.D lights.

However, at least one city councillor is concerned about the impact these new signs will have on motorist safety and their impact on neighbourhoods.

“I’m concerned that these signs will have a negative impact on driver safety, residents’ ability to quietly enjoy their property, and the negative effects on quality of life,” said Gloucester-Southgate Ward Coun. Diane Deans.

She said there is no way she will allow one of these signs in her ward.

Arlene Gregoire, the city’s chief building official, said that because only three of the city’s 12 new billboards will be digital, councillors will be able to veto digital billboards in their wards if they are opposed.

Not all councillors see the policy change as a bad thing. Gloucester-South Nepean Ward Coun. Steve Desroches said he thinks that given the city’s financial situation the pilot project, which can generate between four to six times more revenue than conventional billboards, is a positive move,

“This is nothing new, digital billboards are used in almost every jurisdiction in North America. Ottawa is one of the only cities that ban them,” said Desroches.

He also pointed out that the new billboards could facilitate public service announcements about traffic delays or detours for construction.

One of the three digital billboards could appear in Centretown somewhere along Catherine Street.

Somerset Ward Coun. Diane Holmes said she thinks the site, already picked by city staff for the construction of a conventional billboard, would be appropriate because it isn’t too close to residential areas and because it is a major thoroughfare.

“What I’m most interested in is whether or not they will be a distraction to motorists, but the only way to find out is to go ahead and try them,” said Holmes.

The approval for the pilot project comes just over a month after city council directed staff to examine the status of Ottawa’s advertising package which includes integrated street furniture, transit, and city facilities.

There was concern that the city was mismanaging its advertising resources and that it was flooding the market.

Over the last five years, the city earned $1.1 million from its 19 conventional billboards.

Without including digital billboards in the new round of construction, the city estimates that it would earn $450,000 over five years. By replacing three conventional billboards with the digital pilot project the city expects to increase its five year earnings to $606,000 for the 12 new signs.