Near N.C. 147, East Durham
  • Courtesy John Schelp
  • Near N.C. 147, East Durham

Update Monday afternoon: Barry Van Deman, president and CEO of the Museum of Life and Science, wrote to City Council members today about the museum’s position on digital billboards. You can read the letter, but in essence he reiterates the museum “has not taken and does not intend” an official position on the billboard ordinance. museumlettermonday.pdf

Tonight’s Durham City Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. If the main City Council Chambers fills, there is other seating in an overflow area where people can watch the proceedings on TV screens. The meeting will also be broadcast on Channel 8.

As of Friday, City Council had received more than 750 e-mails opposing changes to the billboard ordinance and four supporting the amendment, which would allow digital billboards.

The relationship between some local nonprofit groups and Fairway Outdoor Advertising is in question three days before a pivotal vote Monday night on digital billboards.

Fairway, which is pushing for a change to city and county ordinances that would allow it to place digital billboards in Durham, routinely gives away billboard space to nonprofits.

However, some of those same nonprofits that received free billboard space from Fairway have sent letters to city council members promoting their partnerships with the Georgia-based advertising company—and pushing the benefits of digital billboards for their groups.

(Clarification posted Saturday morning: The letter obtained by the Indy is addressed to Mayor Bill Bell, who also sits on city council; however, at least one city council member received the letter in an envelope sent from Fairway. museumletter.pdf )

And in one case, a strategist working with the billboard industry appeared to troll for nonprofits by asking a City Councilwoman about her favorite groups.

Although Fairway has been courting community groups about digital billboards for at least two years, the most recent examples of Fairway’s wooing of nonprofits date from June, when several nonprofits sent letters to City Council members supporting the ordinance change.

The Museum of Life and Science sent a letter on June 8 noting that “Fairway was a valued partner” in helping the museum publicize its new Dinosaur Trail exhibit. “The Museum and other nonprofits will benefit from the proposed digital billboard opportunity,” the letter said.

Nonprofits receive free space but pay for the printing of the billboard message. With digital billboards, “this cost is eliminated and resources are available for our mission,” the letter reads.

Julie Ketner Rigby, the museum’s vice president for external relations, said the letter was intended to “point out information” about the value of its partnership with Fairway.

Rigby said the museum board has not taken a position on the billboard ordinance.

The strategy of cozying up to nonprofit groups is emphasized in materials of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, a trade group representing the billboard industry. Scenic America, a nonprofit that opposes billboards, quotes the association as saying, “Know the public service and/or charity interest of the mayor, planning director, council members, … their wives and husbands … Direct your public service efforts toward these causes … Make these persons aware each time you donate space to a cause and/or group for which they have an interest.”

Steve Toler, a local consultant and strategist who has been working with the billboard industry, appears to have used this tactic with one elected official.

At least a year ago, Toler asked to have lunch with City Councilwoman Diane Catotti. At the end of the conversation, which, until that point had not mentioned billboards, Catotti told the Indy, Toler casually asked her about her favorite nonprofit groups. Catotti said she named a couple, including the Durham Crisis Response Center. She said she thought nothing of it until at some point after that luncheon when she saw billboards for those same groups. Catotti told the Indy that Toler did not follow up with her about the billboards and she has not been contacted by Toler or Fairway since the original lunch.

Toler did not responded to a phone call and an e-mail requesting comment.

Fairway General Manager Paul Hickman said late Friday afternoon that he knows nothing of Toler’s lunch with Catotti. He said the company has long donated space to nonprofits, which is “very common” in the outdoor advertising industry.

As for the recent letters sent by nonprofits supporting Fairway, Hickman said the proposed text amendment clearly states that Fairway will donate one 8-second spot each minute to public service announcements, including nonprofits.

“As the nonprofits learn about the text amendment, they know it benefits their business,” Hickman said.

Hickman said the nonprofits took the lead on sending the pro-billboard letter: “Every nonprofit that wrote a letter” contacted Fairway and said ‘Can we help you? And we said, ‘You can make a phone call or write a letter, if you want. It’s up to you.’”

Interestingly, the museum letter went beyond its personal interest in publicizing its exhibits. The letter echoed Fairway’s talking points on Amber and Silver alerts, noting “… the opportunities for Amber and Silver alerts are all important considerations for this proposal.”

Asked why the Museum of Life and Science would be concerned about Amber and Silver alerts, Hickman replied that nonprofits could have obtained information about the text amendment from many sources, including the company’s website. “I don’t know why they wrote what they wrote,” he said.

However, Rigby said Fairway provided the museum with information about digital billboards in a sample letter. She said she “picked and chose” from the many points Fairway listed in that template, adding she has seen other nonprofits’ letters. “They are all a little bit different,” she said.

Amber and Silver alerts were a key part of a July 2009 presentation before the Durham Crime Cabinet. There, Patrick Byker, an attorney with K&L Gates, which represents Fairway, emphasized how digital billboards are more effective than other media at drawing attention to Amber and Silver alerts.

Fairway also made presentations to the Durham City-County Appearance Commission, the Durham Central Park board and the city’s Partners Against Crime (PAC) to gain support for the amendment.

A rift formed among PAC representatives after Fairway attorneys pitched the proposal to a City Wide PAC meeting, a gathering of the leaders of the five PAC districts. During the pitch, Fairway asked for the City Wide PAC’s support.

By a 3-2 vote, the City Wide PAC allowed Fairway to claim that the group supported the text amendment—even though those five leaders had not cleared it with their individual district groups.

Bill Anderson (PAC 2) and Patty Coninger (PAC 3) voted against the text amendment, according to PAC e-mails.

Marion Lambert (PAC 5), Harold Chestnut (PAC 4) and Wanda Boone, (PAC 1) voted in favor of Fairway’s proposal.

Boone, executive director of Durham Together for Resilient Youth (T.R.Y.), received harsh criticism from billboard opponents because she supported the ordinance change, yet had received free billboards from Fairway in 2007, about a year before the company’s main push for a change to the ordinance.

Boone declined to comment for this story, but she told her PAC colleagues in an e-mail that “the request for me to speak came via Harold Chestnut … to voice the result of City-wide PAC’s vote (period) in favor of the electronic billboard ‘for the safety of our Durham Community.’ … I carried the message. “

John Schelp, an outspoken opponent of digital billboards, said he is not surprised by Fairway’s apparent wooing of nonprofit groups. “We said a year and a half ago that Fairway would do this. Sure enough, it’s all happening.”