How did we get here?

When Millcreek incorporated in 2016, it inherited a sign and billboard ordinance from Salt Lake County. Prior to 2016 the billboard industry had worked with the county leadership and agreed to prohibit any additional billboards throughout the unincorporated parts of the county, but convinced the county to add a “billboard bank” to the billboard ordinance. The billboard bank would ensure that if a billboard company removed an existing billboard for any reason, it could “bank” the square footage of the billboard face and then use that “banked” square footage to install a new billboard at a different location. Even though the billboard ordinance prohibited additional billboards, it ensured that existing billboards would never go away – they could be relocated in any commercial or industrial zone in the unincorporated county, including Millcreek.

Soon after incorporation, Mayor Silvestrini and his staff, through an exhaustive public process, created a city center master plan that defined the “vision” for the future city center. That city center master plan specifically prohibited digital signage of any type in the city center – including digital billboards. Starting in 2018 the planning commission and the city’s planning department worked together to update the billboard ordinance inherited from Salt Lake County. Those changes were approved by the city council in 2020 but the billboard bank language remained along with a specific prohibition against digital billboards.

In 2021, after the city had borrowed $59M to pay for the construction of its new city hall and to cover other costs associated with city center development, the mayor's staff suddenly announced that a billboard on 3300 South owned by Reagan Outdoor Advertising (ROA) was in the way. The mayor's staff claimed if the billboard was not removed it would put future city center development projects at risk and make it difficult for the city to start making repayments against the $59 million debt. The mayor and his staff were desperate for a quick solution.

Sometime between January and July 2021, the mayor's staff hatched a plan it felt would solve this urgent financial problem – make a deal with ROA to swap out the obstructing billboard for a new digital billboard that would be installed just a few feet away, still on 3300 South but in a spot that wouldn’t block any construction. However, the proposed deal went far beyond the one billboard that was in the way. The mayor's staff also wanted to also install two additional digital billboards on the perimeter of the city center and in return ROA would agree to take down four of their nearby billboards (a total of eight “faces” or surfaces) without putting them into the billboard bank. ROA would also agree to forfeit any square footage it had previously saved in the billboard bank. Millcreek would own all three digital billboards but would lease them to ROA for 40 years. ROA would spend its own money to install the digital billboards and give the city 40% of the display time to advertise their own city events while retaining 60% of the time to sell for non-city advertising. After 40 years the lease would terminate and the city would have full control of the digital billboards.

But, this scheme had a fundamental problem – the deal with ROA wasn’t legal because the sign ordinance prohibited billboards in the city center and the city center master plan specifically prohibited digital signage including digital billboards. So, the mayor's staff proposed changes to the sign ordinance and city center master plan that would allow the installation of the digital billboards within the city center.

When this plan became public the response from Millcreek residents was clear: No to digital billboards anywhere in Millcreek; No to the sign ordinance changes; No to changes city center master plan changes that would reverse the prohibition on digital billboards.

Facing that outcry from residents and to avoid financial risks, the mayor's staff ultimately backed away from their plan to install three digital billboards. Instead, the deal with ROA was scaled back and the city council voted to swap out just the one static billboard that was actually blocking construction. The city council also approved scaled-down changes for the sign ordinance so that only one digital billboard could be installed in the city center – the one that is currently standing on 3300 South.

Now, two and a half years later, the mayor's staff is reviving the plan to install the two additional digital billboards that were dropped from the deal with ROA in 2021. But, the city faces the same problem as in 2021: a deal with ROA to install two more digital billboards isn’t legal because the sign ordinance specifically only allows one digital billboard in the city center. The mayor's staff is now asking community councils and the planning commission to go along with a proposal to change the sign ordinance AGAIN to allow three digital billboards in the city center. This time, there is no financial crunch or construction impediment caused by billboards that can only be solved by another digital billboard deal with ROA. This time, in spite of the universal condemnation of the city’s 2021 digital billboard scheme, the mayor's staff simply claims it likes digital billboards, that they are the best media for advertising city center events, and that they are a tolerable blight on the city’s skyline.

Click here to read about the legal issues we've identified about the city's digital billboard plan.