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The Advertising Culture

A big billboard remains standing on a lot that was turned into a park

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Having a massive billboard as the most prominent feature of a Tucson cultural resource park may be ironic and appropriate--but that doesn't mean that nearby residents like it.

The billboard has sat for years on a piece of property just south of the Interstate 10/Interstate 19 interchange. Then the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) redesigned the intersection and built a tall sound wall along the east side of I-19. As a result, northbound drivers on I-19 now can't see the billboard, and those heading south would have to have excellent vision, or a pair of binoculars, to read the sign way off in the distance.

As part of its roadway project, the ADOT in 2004 also provided the city of Tucson with more than $1 million to implement the Julian Wash Cultural Resource Park. This small facility is located approximately where the interchange once was and contains information on the rich cultural and archeological history of the area.

The park opened last year--and the enormous billboard sits all alone at its western end. It currently promotes Telemundo TV news on one side and Advance Nursing (which has canceled its contract for the billboard) on the other.

Because of the sign's lack of visibility, its owner, Clear Channel Outdoor, wrote the city in March to say that they were dropping their rent payment for the land from $10,000 a year to $10.

City Attorney Mike Rankin explains that under the lease the billboard company had with the previous landowner, Clear Channel "had the unilateral right to reduce the rent because of the roadwork done in the area." It wasn't an issue the city could challenge, he adds.

When the City Council approved taking the state's million-dollar offer to develop the cultural resource park, they were told revenue from the billboard could "offset a portion of the cost of maintenance of the facility." However, 84 cents a month won't go very far in covering the current monthly maintenance amount of more than $900.

At the same time, the sign is an enormous eyesore for anyone visiting the cultural resource park. Both local and Phoenix representatives of Clear Channel didn't return phone calls seeking comment on whether the company would voluntarily remove the sign.

City staff members have also explored the matter, but according to an internal e-mail message, when they asked a Clear Channel representative "if they wanted to cancel the lease," the reply was "not at this time."

"Personally, I would like to get it out of there," says Patricia Brownell, president of the Sunset Villa Neighborhood Association, an area which includes the park. "It's a cultural site now, and the sign defeats the purpose."

Neighborhood resident Jessie Tallanes agrees. "(The billboard) is not serving any function, so it might as well go. Who else will see it but those walking on the park trail?"

But the sign may not be going anywhere for a long, long time. The lease was set to expire in 2011, but a term stipulates that the lease is extended for 30 years if the property is acquired by a governmental agency.

When the City Council approved ADOT's park offer in 2004, they were told "a legal challenge to the clause which extends the lease term upon acquisition by a public agency" might be appropriate.

That step hasn't been taken yet, but Rankin says it's still possible.

"If, in good faith, we believe we have the right to terminate the lease (in 2011), we could go to the council with it. If told to proceed, it is something that could happen," Rankin said.

But Rankin points out this legal challenge wouldn't conclude quickly. The city has been in court for decades with Clear Channel and its predecessor companies regarding hundreds of billboards around town, and Rankin estimates the time frame of another case "would be measured in years, not months."

Clear Channel Outdoor won't have the same luxury of time regarding a billboard on Broadway Boulevard near Fremont Avenue (between Euclid and Campbell avenues). Unless something unforeseen happens, that sign should be coming down shortly.

The city acquired the property in 2005 as part of its plan to eventually widen Broadway. At that time, Clear Channel began paying City Hall $166.67 a month rent for the sign.

Under the terms of the lease, the city had to terminate the agreement in writing at least 90 days prior to the expiration date, or it would automatically be renewed for 10 more years.

The city staff was on top of the situation, but before they sent the termination notice, they checked with Nina Trasoff's City Council office, because she represents the area.

After getting the go-ahead, Clear Channel was notified the lease would end as scheduled on July 31. The company will then have up to 120 days to remove the sign.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, that sign should be history. On the other hand, the enormous billboard in the Julian Wash Cultural Resource Park could remain standing for many holiday seasons to come.

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