Port Norfolk says nay to billboard, cash payment

A billboard at Dorchester Avenue and Hoyt Street: Photo by Pete Stidman.A billboard at Dorchester Avenue and Hoyt Street: Photo by Pete Stidman. Click to expand.It just got a little tougher to put up new billboards in Dorchester.

John McLaughlin, a principal of Sullivan McLaughlin Companies, offered the Port Norfolk Civic Association $50,000 up front and 8.3 percent of net revenue for 20 years in exchange for permission to erect a billboard on his property next to the Southeast Expressway on Tuesday night. A relatively generous offer from a man well respected and trusted in the Port. But neighbors turned it down flat.

"I've been fighting for 30 years against billboards," said Ben Tankle, who helped start a civic group in the waterfront village in 1958. "The money is just them dangling the carrot, saying 'Come on… I'll give you 50 grand.' Well I'm not going to sell my vote."

Attorney Daniel McDevitt said Mr. McLaughlin came up with the idea when he heard Clear Channel propose a billboard for a site behind Signs By J Inc., a neighbor to SullyMac.

"He said, 'Maybe I can make a better deal for the community,'" said McDevitt. "Clearly if Mr. McLaughlin controls the light switch, and the advertising company, that would be better than trying to find out who Clear Channel really is."

Many in the crowd agreed with that logic, saying if anyone built a billboard, it should be McLaughlin. He has a reputation of giving back to the neighborhood. But the ensuing discussion quickly revealed that the majority in the room would rather find ways to take down existing billboards than let any new ones be built, even if it mean forgoing some $15,000 to $30,000 in annual income for local scholarships or other good works.

"In 15 years no billboard has been put up in this neighborhood," said civic member John Krall. "I think that's a priceless record to hold on to."

When a vote was called, the margin was 2 to 1 against SullyMac's billboard proposal. And the palpable anti-placard sentiment in the room signals that future attempts to erect outdoor advertising in the neighborhood will face an uphill battle.

That will be welcome news to Joe Chaisson and others who have worked against the proliferation of billboards in the past. Much anxiety has arisen in the past year after a deal cut in Cedar Grove with Clear Channel allowed two billboards to stay up - despite an earlier Zoning Board of Appeal ruling that would have brought them down - after a $50,000 donation was made to the St. Brendan's Guild by property-owner Arthur Murphy.

That deal, originally for $100,000 directly from Clear Channel, is apparently still incomplete - though the billboards remain - as is a larger proposal from the same company to take down 58 billboards across Dorchester in exchange for erecting four or five new ones along the expressway.

That idea, it has only recently been learned, was presented to a roomful of city and state elected officials last summer, but never took off.

"They were going to meet with the community as a whole, that was where it was left," said City Councillor Maureen Feeney. "That's the last time we heard from them."

Strangely, at least two of those 58 billboards have come down anyway. The two placards' removal at Dorchester Avenue and Edison Green has opened up a new skyline for northbound traffic on the Avenue, revealing the steeple of Blessed Mother Teresa Church. Clear Channel's regional director of real estate John Pelrine did not immediately return a phone call for this article.

Clear Channel's disappearance on the local scene may mean they have more pressing issues at hand. The company financial condition is quickly souring. Thomas H. Lee Partners and Mitt Romney's Bain Capital acquired the company in July last year for $17.9 billion, triggering a bonus dividend to shareholders. But by September, the company was reporting $20.9 billion in debt. And given the poor economy, financial advisors are showing less and less confidence that the company will be able to repay their debts. Last week both Moody's and Standard & Poor's put Clear Channel on review for possible downgrades further into junk territory. Both already rate it five steps below investment grade.

But if the company's proposal for a billboard trade does come again, it seems unlikely to garner wide community support, despite the benefits removing many smaller billboards throughout the neighborhood would bring.

"There's a reason they're talking about taking 50 down," said state Rep. Marty Walsh, who also heard the proposal. "It's because they're not making money on them today. They're not taking them down out of the goodness of their heart. They're doing it because the billboards along the highway are high revenue billboards."