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Inside City Hall: Are ads on city buildings a sign of the future?

Fifteen “municipal asset categories” have been listed for their potential to display advertising. They include parks, city markets, libraries and public safety buildings.

Above: An ad for Sleepy’s is emblazoned on the side of a Light Rail train, which is operated by the state MTA.

The Rawlings-Blake administration is in the early stages of developing a municipal marketing initiative that would include selling advertising on municipal properties.

We’re trying to picture what it might be like:

• An electronic Horseshoe Casino billboard flashing above the stately mansard roofs of City Hall?

• Berger Cookie ads adorning playground benches in Druid Hill Park?

• “This bathroom brought to you by Charmin” slapped on stall doors at branch Enoch Pratts?

The Department of Finance has issued a Request For Information (RFI) seeking industry feedback on “advertising alternatives that will assist the City in generating the maximum value for the City’s general fund operating budget.”

It has listed 15 municipal asset categories available for private advertising and commercial marketing purposes. They include administrative (buildings), public safety, parks, city markets, libraries, public rights of way, and city mailings (water bills and property taxes).

Enhance the City’s Profile

Other cities, such as Chicago, have launched similar municipal marketing ventures with varying degrees of success.

Baltimore is already engaged in small-scale municipal marketing efforts, such as the ongoing sale of advertising on Circulator buses, which the city needs to help fund the service. The city recently sold naming rights to the downtown Arena (née Baltimore Civic Center) to Royal Farms for $1.25 million.

Long-anticipated renovations to other city properties – Lexington Market and Cross Street Market come to mind – could make the older spaces far more attractive to advertisers.

Aside from generating revenue, the city hopes its municipal marketing program will enhance its “regional, national and international profile.”

The city-owned downtown arena features a battery of billboard advertisements along its outer walls. This view is at Baltimore Street near Howard. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The city-owned arena features a battery of billboard advertising along its outer walls. This view is at Baltimore Street near Howard. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Changing the Laws

The city plans to use the information gathered to suggest modifications to city zoning laws – as necessary – to issue an RFP (Request for Proposals) soliciting advertising and marketing plans from companies who have experience with municipal marketing ventures.

Currently, city zoning  prohibits general advertising on the outside of city-owned buildings. The code does, however, allow for general advertising on the inside of city-owned buildings.

“The City is interested in exploring the potential for modifying (or possibly eliminating) these Zoning Code restrictions,” the document states, tentatively.

And yet, respondents to the RFI are told to assume that the city code will be modified “to allow firms to advertise on the outside of city-owned buildings.”

The document points out that the city is aware of the “social impacts” of municipal advertising and says the city will “entertain comments from citizens and community organizations about the potential effects” at a later date.

No Ads for Tobacco, Guns or Alcohol

The kinds of ads allowed on city property would be restricted.

Those of a sexual nature or ads that support or oppose political candidates would be forbidden. So would ads for alcohol, guns or tobacco products.

And certain city facilities won’t be available for marketing purposes at all, either because they are under the control of other government or commercial entities, or because “of a sensitive community or historic nature.”

Those most likely to be excluded from a future RFP include public school buildings, bus or Light Rail shelters installed and managed by the Maryland Transit Administration, the Walters Art Museum, the Edgar Allan Poe House and any property designated as historic or preserved.

According to Citibuy, Baltimore’s procurement website, a number of advertising, marketing and media companies have downloaded the RFI.

Among them, Adrian Harpool Associates, a public affairs firm owned by the former campaign manager of City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young, and Mjach Designs, which had a contract to perform marketing for the Charm City Circulator.

Other interested parties include WJZ-TV, Signal Outdoor Advertising, and IMG Worldwide, a sports, fashion and media advertiser.

When the city plans on launching its municipal marketing program is not known. Several e-mails from The Brew to the mayor’s office and the Department of General Services regarding the status of Baltimore’s Municipal Marketing Initiative – such as who will be running it and when an RFP could be issued – were not returned.

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