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Mayor: City Could Net $700K By Leasing Public Land for Billboards

The City Council authorized Mayor Ted Bettencourt on Thursday to enter into lease agreements for two city-owned parcels for the purpose of installing billboards.

The billboard behind Santarpio's Pizza on Route 1 is just one of several billboards to be approved in Peabody in recent months. Credit: John Castelluccio
The billboard behind Santarpio's Pizza on Route 1 is just one of several billboards to be approved in Peabody in recent months. Credit: John Castelluccio
Sharp words were exchanged Thursday night as Mayor Ted Bettencourt asked city councilors to authorize him to enter into lease agreements for two city-owned parcels of land on Route 1 and Route 128. The plan is to lease the sites to outdoor advertising companies to install billboards.

One parcel is at 3 Newbury St. (a tiny plot in front of Holiday Inn) and the other is on 10 undeveloped acres of land next to Fishery Products International off Jubilee Drive. The city has identified a small corner of that parcel that faces Route 128 as suitable for a billboard.

Bettencourt said the city could realize as much as $700,000 annually in new revenue by leasing the sites and he needed a vote from the council that night in order to take action on bids submitted by a Jan. 31 deadline on the city's Request for Proposals.

That's revenue the city sorely needs with the possibility of a $500,000 cut in state aid on the horizon. Bettencourt said the initial budget proposal Gov. Deval Patrick unveiled this week would cut Peabody's local aid by 2.37 percent. Most of that would be a reduction in general education aid.

"I understand that billboards have been a sensitive topic for the city for a long time now and I sympathize," said Bettencourt, but he argued, these new revenues in addition to other initiatives can help keep Peabody affordable and pay for important projects, such as the new middle school and the city's share of the new regional vocational school in Danvers.

Councilor-at-Large Anne Manning-Martin argued, however, Bettencourt suddenly dropped the proposal in the council's lap and was rushing his request through without allowing opportunity for public input on the matter. She was "greatly concerned" at that.

"People don't want them (billboards). They don't want them near their homes...they don't want to drive by [them]," said Manning-Martin. "We will be making a huge error if we allow public land to be used in this manner without public input."

"People will be furious with us," she said, adding that the council would be doing Bettencourt a favor to deny the request that night.

Bettencourt, steamed at the implication he was trying to manipulate the council and ignore public concerns over billboards, fired back at Manning-Martin.

"I resent the fact that Councilor Manning-Martin implies we are brushing past this," he said, arguing his request to the council followed proper procedures for the utilization of city land and was publicly advertised on the council's agenda.

"I am not here as a mayor to ask for favors," he said. "I don't operate that way. I am here presenting options to you."

Bettencourt noted Manning-Martin has voted to approve several other billboard permits. "My feeling is [the public] will be furious if we're laying off police officers or not [maintaining] the roads because the governor cut our [local aid]," he said.

Manning-Martin said either Bettencourt misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued what she said -- she only meant councilors would spare him a public uproar by denying the request. She said her previous votes were cast in the spirit of compromise even though she disliked billboards.

"You've got an idea, I disagree with it. I think it's a money grab," she said. "I think there are better ways to generate money than with these unsightly billboards."

The rest of the council sided with Bettencourt, however, agreeing that billboards at those two sites wouldn't be as obtrusive as they are at other locations. The council voted 9-1 (Councilor-at-Large Dave Gravel was absent).

The council would also have to approve special permits at either site for any billboards to be erected. 

Councilor-at-Large Mike Garabedian said it was an "easy decision" for him if the city could generate at least $500,000 by putting up a couple billboards, especially given the state of the economy and possibility of a cut in local aid.

"Billboards are a way of life. [They are] here and [they are] here to stay," he said.

And Ward 6 Councilor Barry Sinewitz, no fan of billboards, said he could still support the proposal for what it was -- a way to generate revenue. Will it help Route 1 become a "jewel?" "Well, we have two strip joints, a methadone clinic, an adult video store and some billboards," he said. "It is what it is."

Councilor-at-Large Tom Gould added, however, that he'd like to be done with billboards after this. "I would like to see these two billboards be our last."
   
Bettencourt said the billboard operators would be subject to all applicable local, state and federal regulations and revenues would come from negotiated linkage fees and special permit fees and other administrative costs.

He also noted the city would get 20 free hours of advertising per month on each board. That could be used for all sorts of public alerts or city-sponsored events.

The RFP was sent out weeks ago with a deadline of Jan. 31. Prospective outdoor advertising companies have until then to get their bids in.

As for state aid, that spending plan may well drastically change before a final budget is approved by both the House, Senate and Patrick, Bettencourt acknowledged. He said he would be speaking with the city's state delegation and advocating for level funding at least.

"Cuts of this magnitude would really be devastating," he said. "That's another reason why this proposal is important."

One other thing Bettencourt noted that appeared to be a prevailing misconception, even among councilors that night, was the notion the city chose to become the new billboard capital of the North Shore.

He said it was just the opposite -- companies wanted to come to Peabody because three major highways intersect in the city. Those initial spate of requests prompted the effort more than a year ago to look at zoning regulations for billboards, he said.

Bettencourt said it was because of those zoning changes the council passed that billboards were prohibited from many areas, such as Route 114. Some proposals, however, such as the infamous Lowell Street billboard, were already before the council well before those changes.

In terms of the revenue projection, that is based on analysis of what other communities have done, Bettencourt explained. He said Medford and Stoneham, for instance, have leased land in similar ways for billboards.
sun January 28, 2014 at 09:49 AM
And we must find ways for revenue we r on our own here in peabodyyy..Salem did a great job having p[eople drive thru peabody to spend there money in Salem .. My idea sorry we need the city council to vote on toll$$$ for the month of OCT to drive down lowell st peabody residents free
sun January 28, 2014 at 09:56 AM
MITCH MCCONNELL ACCUSED OF SNEAKING IN $2 BILLION ‘KENTUCKY KICKBACK’ IN BUDGET, DEBT LIMIT DEAL This is how r government works Term Limits U Hacks That Hang around do nothing get out of office Let some young inspiring college grad have a opportunity
sun January 28, 2014 at 10:03 AM
If it is such a good deal the city should put up the billboards on the city owned property and we will hire some young college grad no relatives sorry to manage it and we could lease it out to the CORP FOLKS that want to own it
Dan Walcott January 28, 2014 at 01:27 PM
Billboards are an effective way to inform the public of what your city has to offer. Who doesn't roll their eyes when they read, "In Sweden..." I am pretty proud to live in "America" If we are to save the world from being distracted, we might start with "Scenic Vistas." Isn't the countryside distracting to drivers? Perhaps we should ban pretty girls on your streets as well. The anti-billboard crusaders will attempt to control all business to fit their narrow views. I have known a few who complain the loudest but then end up using billboards for their needs. The problem I have with this arrangement is that Government should not be in business competing against private citizens. Why should Government land be leased to a select few? Why can't the neighbors enjoy revenue from their commercial properties? My second issue is with City Planners who cut deals with national billboard companies to remove smaller billboards in order to build new large digital units. Think about what those city planners are doing to small business. In their zeal to control everything, they harm small Mom & Pops who can never afford the new large digital spots. This ensures that our children will never be capable of competing with the huge national chains. I don't know how they do it in Sweden, but I know America became great and is starting to reverse that trend via over-regulation and Government greed.
mark January 31, 2014 at 07:53 AM
Nothing wrong with Sweden! America was founded by Europeans! By the way, much better looking women ( tall blondes) in Sweden then what I see in Boston! I don't get the whole big butt and tatoo your body thing?

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