The Times Free Press By Tim Omarzu May 17, 2017
‘Look Hoo’s Up Downtown.”
Those words, superimposed over a photo of an owl, and other images, including a smiley face encouraging people to enjoy the outdoors, greeted architect Jared Hueter one recent morning as he drove south on Market Street to his job.
They’re posted on a brand-new, 600-square-foot digital billboard at Market and Sixth streets.
“I came in that morning and saw a 25-foot-tall smiley face telling me to enjoy the outdoors,” Hueter said.
“I found that a little bit ironic: LED signs that tell you to enjoy the outdoors – while blocking your view of the outdoors.”
Hueter is one of a number of Chattanoogans who aren’t happy with a 25-foot-tall, 24-foot-wide digital billboard that Fairway Outdoor Advertising put up about two weeks ago in the heart of downtown.
Critics say the brightly flashing sign isn’t appropriate – especially since the downtown has been designated for years as a scenic area where no new billboards are allowed.
“No, no, no, no. That’s a definite no,” said Catalina Mahler Tuesday afternoon as she crossed Market Street after having lunch with co-workers. “It’s going to look like the Strip in Vegas.”
Melanie Silva, vice president of sales at SmartFurniture across the street from the billboard, calls it the “Enormotron.”
“I was so excited when they were taking down the old billboard – then they put that thing up,” said Silva, who’s from Hawaii, where billboards aren’t allowed because of that state’s natural beauty.
Not everyone objects to the new sign.
“I think it’s cool,” said Taylor Pack, an employee of Chattanooga Ducks, a sightseeing tour business located directly under the new billboard. “It caught my attention.”
And Scott LaFoy, the billboard company’s area general manager, said the digital billboard is grandfathered in inside the downtown scenic area, because it’s an upgrade of a double-decker billboard that’s been there since at least the 1970s.
The city issued a permit for what LaFoy called a “state of the art” sign, which he hasn’t heard any complaints about.
“The scenic guidelines do not preclude the modernization of an existing sign,” he said. “Anytime something different is done, somebody’s going to complain about it. We have had no complaints. Our advertisers love it.”
‘Asset for downtown? Hell, no’
But Allen McCallie, a longtime Chattanooga lawyer who worked for three years helping to draft the city’s sign ordinance in the 1980s, says that Fairway’s new digital billboard doesn’t belong downtown.
State law may say something different, he said, but “it is completely against the language and the spirit of the sign ordinance in Chattanooga.”
City Council appointed the group that wrote the sign ordinance partly because there were so many signs on wheels outside businesses 30 years ago, McCallie said.
“The city was covered up with portable signs. We used to have hundreds of those all over town,” he said.
“There was a general perception at that time that this beautiful place that we live in was becoming overwhelmed with signs of all types. Everybody felt that Chattanooga – as the Scenic City of the South – needed to do something.”
Compromises were made with the sign industry, he said. For example, there was an understanding that billboards would go away over time. A billboard used to sit atop the Flatiron Building at Georgia and McCallie avenues, he said, but it got taken down – forever – when the Flatiron Building changed hands.
“They could not go back today and put another billboard up,” McCallie said.
So he doesn’t understand how Fairway Outdoors was able to install a completely new digital billboard.
“You won’t find anything in this ordinance saying that if you take a sign down you can replace it with a modern, new electric sign,” McCallie said. “Forget all the legal mumbo jumbo. Is that an asset for downtown Chattanooga? Hell no.”
River City Co. opposed
The River City Co., a private nonprofit organization whose mission is to revitalize downtown, also opposes the new sign.
“From our perspective, there’s a reason why downtown Chattanooga was classified as a scenic zone: we wanted to keep our downtown scenic and inviting,” spokeswoman Amy Donahue said.
It’s taken 30 years of hard work to revitalize downtown, she said.
“We feel strongly that that billboard undermines the hard work of everyone in our community,” Donahue said.
“I think it [builds] on the work being done downtown,” he said, comparing it to The Nashville Sign, a “much, much larger” digital billboard at Broadway and West End Avenue in Nashville.
“Nashville’s progressive, and this is state-of-the-art advertising,” said LaFoy, whose company was in the running Tuesday for an Obie award from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America for Fairway’s 60 black-and-white billboards here with the single word “Ubiquitous” that was later revealed to be part of Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke and a Song” summer campaign.