A company has proposed a new electronic kiosk system for downtown Raleigh that would connect people to the closest restaurant, share real-time transportation information, and spread community alerts, and taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay for any of it.

Last week, the city council declined—at least for now.

Instead of allowing the legal department explore tweaking city code to allow the kiosks, the council opted to explore different wayfinding options, with some council members saying they were concerned about light pollution, data breaches, and that the kiosk’s advertisements could transform downtown into Las Vegas.

The council’s reaction was disappointing, says Downtown Raleigh Alliance president and CEO Kristopher Larson. The DRA has spent nearly two years working with kiosk vendor IKE Smart City on the project.

“It didn’t go as we hoped it would go, I think that’s clear,” Larson says. “There’s a lot of change that’s happening in this community, and change can be unsettling for folks.”

The DRA has been looking into establishing a wayfinding system downtown since 2015, with the goal of replacing the current static map system. After selecting IKE Smart City as a vendor, the DRA presented information on the kiosks to the council in July 2017. That November, council members unanimously voted to move forward, authorizing city staff to work with DRA and IKE on a plan to add fifteen kiosks downtown.

What changed? “We finally got to see what it really was, what saying yes really means,” says council member Kay Crowder. “Seeing something hypothetically is one thing, but when you get down to the elements of really what that means in order to accomplish it, I was slightly taken aback by what that means for our current sign ordinance.”

Headquartered in Ohio, IKE Smart City installs eight-foot-tall touchscreen kiosks pedestrians can use like a tablet to find businesses nearby, search job postings, look up transportation options, take government surveys, and gain access to free Wi-Fi. Unlike content aggregated through online search engines, the kiosks display information based on proximity, promoting businesses that might not have the financial means to pay for search engine optimization. The machines also collect pedestrian traffic data and monitor air quality. An emergency button to call 911 is optional.

IKE covers the cost of installation and all ongoing maintenance fees in return for a cut of the revenue from the advertisements displayed as a screensaver when the kiosk is not in use. The DRA would receive about 15 percent of the ad revenue—about $200,000 a year, Larson estimates.

IKE is in the process of launching in fifteen markets throughout the country. In Denver, each of the company’s fifteen kiosk gets an average of 1,422 users a day.

The snag is that the city must update its strict sign ordinance to allow IKE’s advertisements, which city attorney Robin Tatum Currin says would need to apply to all signage in the district. While the city could write the ordinance as narrowly as possible, Currin says the content in the ads can’t be regulated. 

At a meeting last week, council member David Cox said he saw little difference between the kiosk and a billboard. Russ Stephenson was concerned the kiosks could become vulnerable to hacking, and wondered if a smartphone app could serve the same purpose. And Crowder put forth an extensive list of concerns, including light pollution and inundating downtown with ads.

“Though it is very cool and I like lots of aspects of it, what it does to our sign ordinance and the text change is alarming,” Crowder said. “I don’t want to look like Las Vegas.”

The city has a smartphone app, Larson says, but hardly anyone uses it. When it launched in 2016, fourteen thousand people downloaded it. Last year there were eight thousand downloads, and this year the DRA only expects seven thousand.

“If you think about an analog from being in an airport or shopping mall, people don’t download an app on their phone to figure out where they want to eat lunch, they use the wayfinding directory,” Larson says.

Council member Nicole Stewart, who said she tested the demo IKE installed at Union Station, pushed to explore IKE’s proposal further. “If we can do this, I don’t see the ad component being that onerous,” she said.

Her colleagues didn’t agree. They voted to direct the city staff to look into other wayfinding options and return with alternatives in two months, effectively leaving the IKE proposal in limbo.

While discouraged, Larson says the only thing really lost at this point is time and the potential revenue DRA could earn.

“It’s not as though the time is going to kill us, but we have businesses asking for this type of tool, we have families that come downtown and have no idea that there are great retailers that are kid-friendly within a block of there,” Larson says.