citybeat (2008-08)

Billboard BattleThe Show Goes On

City Beat

Scenic Knoxville seeks to pull the plug on digital billboards

When City Council meets March 11, an ordinance regulating digital billboards is to get a hearing, and a bashing by a newly formed affiliate of Scenic Tennessee called Scenic Knoxville. The group opposes the electronic billboards, already appearing along highways in Knox County with county approval, for safety reasons, its leaders say.

â“There are no limitations on the billboardsâ’ brightness,â” says Gene Burr, a former president of Scenic Tennessee and a board member of Scenic Knoxville, â“and they are distracting [to motorists] and dangerous.â”

Highway safety is not Scenic Knoxvilleâ’s only consideration in attempting to block or slow down the introduction of the computer-controlled billboards to the city. The overall mission of the city, state, and national Scenic Americaâ’s organizations is to raise awareness of and oppose all types of â“visual pollution.â” But Burr concedes that traditional billboards themselves seem here to stay, though they contribute to urban blight.

Then representing Scenic Tennessee, Burr got to voice the organizationâ’s concerns to the Metropolitan Planning Commission late last year, but MPC approved a draft ordinance and sent it along to Council.

Greg Isaacs, the attorney representing Lamar Advertising, says the ordinance is the product of negotiations with the Knoxville mayorâ’s study committee on outdoor advertising.

When state law changed last summer to allow for the digital billboards and Lamar showed interest, the issue was addressed by the study committee. In the meantime, the countyâ’s board of zoning appeals authorized such billboards under the new law, without having to resort to County Commission approval, and a few have popped up along I-40 and out in Solway near the Melton Hill bridge, but the city process moved more slowly.

â“We got a compromise through negotiation, says Isaacs, with several limitations more stringent than provided by state law. E-billboards in the city would be spaced 2,000 feet apart, rather than the 1,000 feet of separation specified by the state and in the county, and the duration of each digital message would be 10 seconds, rather than the eight seconds allowed under state law. There is a trade-off factor, as well. Two existing billboards are to come down for each digital billboard put into service, but Scenic Knoxvilleâ’s president, Duane Grieve, says that is a poor trade-off, since the digital billboards allow for six messages a minute.

Those messages, Isaacs argues, would include public-service postings such as Amber Alerts describing missing children, which can be introduced within minutes of law enforcementâ’s issuance of such alerts. Weather warnings and homeland security notices would also be presented to motorists in a timely manner, he says, along with commercial advertising.

About Scenic Knoxville, which was formed last month with an initial mission to oppose the billboards in the city, Isaacs says, â“These are the same people who would oppose a sign the size of a postage stamp....Itâ’s a vocal minority against any form of commercial speech.â” And itâ’s a protected free speech form, he says, although subject to â“reasonable regulation.â”

The proposed regulation levels, he says, are reasonable. He cites other Tennessee municipalities, such as Chattanooga and Nashville, that have approved the digital billboards, and suggests that Council keep that in mind.

Although Burr acknowledges that the digital billboard issue is â“really what precipitated the Knoxville organization coming together,â” he says there are many more items on Scenic Knoxvilleâ’s agenda: advocacy of the stateâ’s oft-defeated bottle bill, which would require a deposit on drink containers and help reduce litter; opposition to mountaintop removal by coal mining; preservation of trees and shrubbery along public rights-of-way; and advocacy of plantings of wildflowers along highways and in their median strips by the state Department of Transportation. Scenic Tennessee is also at work in those areas, Burr says.

An arm of Scenic America, Scenic Tennesseeâ’s been around since 1987. It was instrumental in getting TDOT to provide for the blue informational signs at Interstate exits in hopes of limiting further growth in traditional billboards, Burr says.

As to the electronic billboards and potential safety concerns, Grieve says the Knoxville organizationâ’s suggestion to Council will be: â“Whatâ’s the hurry? The federal governmentâ’s in the process of doing a study on the safety issues that is due out next year. Canâ’t we wait to see what that says?â” â"Barry Henderson

As the search commences for a new executive director, volunteers and others take the helm of the Dogwood Arts Festival

The Dogwood Arts Festival is forging ahead without, for the moment, a director. Supporters make it sound like things are going so well, you might wonder if they even need one.

The last executive director, Robyn Nelson, resigned unexpectedly just before Christmas, after only 14 months on the jobâ"and just two months before the first of this yearâ’s big events, the pre-festival Home and Garden Show, to be held at the convention center this weekend. During her time at the helm, Nelson had tried to control expenses and also trim down the festival some, lopping off its investment in some outlying events in Fountain City and Farragut. She had bought a residence on Gay Street, but people who knew her say they have no idea why she quit, or where she went. Finances have often been a struggle and were rumored to be behind the resignation of her predecessor, Ed Pasley, but that aspect of the business was reportedly improving.

At 48, Dogwood Arts is Knoxvilleâ’s oldest annual festival, or, at least, the oldest one not directly associated with the Tennessee Vols. After a couple of decades when the festivalâ’s target audience seemed to be rural retirees on church-bus day trips, the festival was reborn with a fresh, almost hip persona, mainly during Pasleyâ’s administration, with interesting evening entertainment, festival-style beer sales, and quality crafts.

â“The festival is going forward,â” says a cheerful-sounding Ken Knight, president of Dogwood Artsâ’ board of directors, whose day job is managing the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown. â“Itâ’s going to be a great festival.â”

Last month, the board assembled a search committee for a new director, and the position is being advertised. As far as qualifications, he says, â“Weâ’re flexible, itâ’s kind of a unique position. There are things weâ’d like to see in a director, but weâ’ll talk to anybody.â”

They had heard from some interested parties about the opening, but chose to advertise it nationally. â“That just all got placed in the last couple of days,â” he said on Tuesday. The deadline for applications is March 7. He doesnâ’t know whether a Dogwood Arts Festival has ever been held without an executive director, but expects this one to run smoothly, anyway.

â“We have such a strong volunteer base,â” he says, noting two remaining staffers, development director Judith Scoonover and business manager Pam Abernathy.

â“Each event has a committee of volunteers responsible for most of the details,â” says Knight. He adds that former chairman and board member Eddie Manis is helping out a lot this year, as well as singer/actress Sara Schwabe, who has been working part-time for the festival and helped line up the musical acts at the Festival on the Square. Held over a three-day weekend, April 11-13, the most festive part of the festival will feature three days of music on two stages; those confirmed at this writing are well-known local performers. Public radio station WDVX will be in charge of an Americana series that Sunday, with performers yet to be announced.

Other events include an art and photography exhibition that will kick off on April 4, followed a few days later by a jazz concert, the trail opening, and the traditional downtown parade on April 11 (the theme is â“Let the Blossoms Rollâ”). After that comes the Diva Luncheon, an event at the Knoxville Museum of Art to celebrate female artists; the Cardboard Boat Regatta, held in Oak Ridge; and a Very Special Arts Festival, an event to encourage â“children of challenged circumstances.â”

But, for now, Knight is boosting this weekendâ’s event. The Home and Garden Show is the festivalâ’s biggest fundraiser. He says it already boasts a â“record number of exhibitors,â” over 200 in all. Among its offerings will be a horticultural innovation, the mobile wheelbarrow garden. â"Jack Neely


All content © 2008 Metropulse .