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Published: Wednesday, 3/21/2001

`Adopted' signs draw cash and criticism

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

If you spot Germany's coat of arms attached to a municipal stop light pole, don't get alarmed. Toledo's traffic control system hasn't become the latest acquisition target of Germany, Inc.

Rather, a dozen signs bearing the distinctive eagle are part of a municipal program that sponsors hail as an effective fund-raiser but which critics condemn as further commercialization of public space with little return.

The German symbol is the logo of Toledo's Weber Transmission Co. and appears on signs erected for the company at heavily traveled intersections as part of the city's seven-month-old “Adopt An-Island” initiative.

Steve Weber, owner of the auto repair shop, is ecstatic about the program.

He pays $100 a year per sign to display his company's name and logo on traffic islands around the city. The price includes production and installation costs, which are done by city employees. And unlike “adopt-a-highway” programs, Mr. Weber isn't responsible for cleaning the islands.

He drove around the city to scout the best-locations. “It's been effective,” said Mr. Weber, who is getting so much exposure from the signs that he was able to drop $2,000 a month in TV ad spots.

“People see them,” he said of the 12-inch by 18-inch signs. “I'll renew them and look for more locations when they open up.”

Weber Transmission, at 130 Oakdale Ave. in East Toledo, has used the eagle logo since 1991. Mr. Weber knew it had a connection to Germany but wasn't aware it was the nation's coat of arms. He was drawn to the bird's distinctive design.

The signs are among 25 taken out by various businesses as part of the program, said Tom Kroma, a manager in Toledo's transportation division. Other sponsors include a flag store, a towing company, insurance agency, and a pharmacy. There is a limit of one sign on each island.

Proceeds go to a nonprofit group that operates youth sports and arts programs in city parks. The program has raised about $2,500 since late summer.

The city hopes to double the number of sponsors. Along with the signs, city crews spruce up the islands with a coat of green paint on the concrete base and yellow on the curb.

Sponsors are permitted to list their name and logo, but not phone numbers, Mr. Kroma said. Signs are produced in the city's sign shop at a cost of about $10, he estimated. About 50 sites are available, although the city will consider requests to place them on traffic islands in other locations, Mr. Kroma said.

Advertising experts said they aren't surprised participating businesses like the program.

“It's a phenomenal deal,” said Jeffrey Bryden, instructor and executive in residence at Bowling Green State University's marketing department.

Such ads help businesses develop name recognition. In conjunction with print or broadcast advertising, they could be part of an effective ad campaign, he added.

In comparison, advertisers pay about $200 a month to place a billboard on the back of a TARTA bus, said Doug Perry, a Cleveland advertising executive who sells ads for the transit system. That figure excludes production costs.

The traffic island advertising is effective because motorists will see the signs over and over on their commute to and from work, he said.

At $100 year, the signs are a bargain, he added. They will create thousands of “impressions” in a given month. The cost is “chump change,” Mr. Perry added.

The Weber Transmission owner agreed that the price is right. “I don't know how the city is making any money on it,” he said.

Local businessman Fred Bretzloff has five signs, which include a red, white, and blue flag with the name of his Holland-Sylvania Road store, Yankee Doodle Flags, Kites, and Fun. “I bought the signs to remind people about us,” he said. “Some people say they see them. It's hard to tell if they're effective.”

If the city raises the price, he said, he might pull out of the program.

City officials say they haven't received any complaints about the advertisements. In unveiling the program in early August, Mayor Finkbeiner described it as a way to “make the city.more attractive.”

Not everyone agrees, however.

“It sounds horrible,” said Lou Anne Mills, a long-time community activist who has promoted city beautification.

“It's selling the city. Why are we so desperate for money that we have to sell every inch of public space?”

A spokesman for a national organization that opposes the spread of outdoor advertising said she has heard of no other cities selling space on traffic islands. “It's a billboard,” said Mary Houser, of Washington-based Scenic America. “The last thing you need in a city is to add signs to the signs that are already there.



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