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Video Billboard Latest Distraction On The Information Highway The Future Is Here, And Some Folks Think It’s Not Very Pretty

“Great Cod, Great Prices!” the electronic billboard screams, with brilliant video fish flipping across its 14- by 19-foot surface. Seconds later, a car roars past in an ad for an auto dealership, then a giant apple pie zooms into view, hawking the wares of a sugarless bakery.

Welcome to America’s first full-color, electronic billboard. It’s by Interstate 5, near the King County line on Puyallup tribal land in the city of Milton.

The mayor of Milton isn’t happy about it. Nor are some other local officials, who call the sign “that thing,” or worse.

Billboards on tribal land are a long-simmering West Side flap.

Some towns, such as Fife, banned roadside billboards, only to see a thicket of signs sprout on tribal land inside the city limits. Other cities, such as Tacoma, carp about tribal billboards but have made plenty of their own contributions to the genre, to put it kindly.

Now, with the full-color electronic sign tearing motorists’ attention from the road, the controversy has gone nuclear.

The Pierce County prosecutor is reviewing federal law to determine whether a lawsuit can be brought. The mayor of Milton considered withholding electricity to the site of the billboard.

But advertisers love the sign. Some say they already see an uptick in sales since the billboard was switched on about a month ago.

Bruce Storey of Emerald Outdoor Advertising in Wenatchee, which sells the sign, said response to it has been mixed.

“There has been some negative response. There always is to everything. But we also had one gentleman say he didn’t like static billboards but he loved this thing.”

Storey said the sign is among the brightest in the world, day or night, and the first roadway billboard of its type anywhere in the country.

The sign is capable of reproducing computer-generated, 3-D graphics and animation, video clips, and scenes from television commercials.

“We could run the Mariners or Seahawks games if we wanted to,” Storey said.

Instead, it’s an ever-changing procession of ads for RV centers, car dealerships and, yes, even the cod special at Skippers.

Messages flash 24 hours a day, with up to eight advertisers per side booking space on the board at any time. That allows each to beam their message a minimum of 1,350 times daily to a captive audience estimated at 200,000 drivers a day.

The board features two advertising options. A smaller, less colorful north face, goes for $3,200 to $7,250 per month, depending on the length of the contract. The bigger, fullcolor side measures 19-by-38 feet, and costs advertisers from $7,300 to $13,900 a month.

The owner of the land the board sits on rents the property to Emerald City Outdoor. The landowner could not be reached for comment.

Storey, who has trademarked the sign “StoreyBoard,” said many people bring up the science fiction film “Blade Runner” when they describe it. Many would not consider that a compliment: “Bladerunner” features a crowded, horrific urban scene dominated by a vivid, 3-D animation billboard.

“I think this is the billboard of the future. It’s kind of scary, but that’s probably what it is,” said Randy Fisher, general manager at Family Fun RV, which bought advertising space on the board.

“We’re having a great month, and I have to attribute that sign to part of it. I figure if you flash your name at that many people that many times you are going to sell more units.”

Fisher likes the way the sign looks. “It’s attractive. It’s different. Billboards have been around a long time. But this is new.”

Dan Johnson, general manager of Jet Chevrolet in Federal Way, said he’s received more comments about his company’s ad on the sign than anything else he can remember in his 22 years with the dealership.

“Friends, friends of friends, customers, everyone calls and says ‘God, that is incredible.’ They love it.”

But some drivers say the billboard is distracting.

“We’re getting all kinds of complaints about it,” said Lt. Ellis Morehead of the Washington State Patrol’s Tacoma office. “People say it’s too bright, too distracting. We tell people it’s not our problem, it’s on private Indian land, there’s nothing we can do.”

Storey said the brightness of the sign has already been turned down once for nighttime viewing, and will be dimmed again. But that’s not because of safety concerns, which Storey waved aside.

The sign is being turned down at night to 20 percent of its possible brightness to make it easier to read, he said, adding that his company was careful to get all the necessary permits to erect the sign. “I’m confident we did everything right, and we hope to be there a long, long time.”

John Bell, who handles legal affairs for the Puyallup Tribe, said all applicable laws were followed in approving the sign.

Storey said his billboard technology could actually help unclutter the landscape, because as many as 14 advertisers can use the same sign.

Properly regulated, he said the sign could actually make roadways more, not less attractive. He noted the sign’s displays are infinitely variable, from restrained, static images to all-out Vegas flash. So it could fit a variety of regulations and tastes.

In Spokane city and county, zoning ordinances would control where such signs could be placed on a case by case basis, zoning specialists said. There’s nothing in either code that flat-out prohibits electronic billboards, although local ordinances restrict signs that flash or create a traffic hazard.

Pierce County Deputy Prosecutor Douglas Vanscoy said his office already has sued in federal court over one tribal billboard, and is gunning for this one, too. “We are very concerned about electronic billboards and the proliferation of billboards in general,” Vanscoy said. “To many people, they are an eyesore.”

That just proves beauty, as usual, is in the eye of the beholder.

The word most frequently used to describe his new billboard, Storey said, is “cool.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo