For Barry Rush, the energetic CEO of Metro Lights, the trouble starts when you call his billboards "signs." "They're not signs," he insists, referring to the eight vast non-signs his firm has draped on the sides of various buildings in downtown Miami. They're "wallscapes" or "murals," he explains, sipping spring water and relaxing in his running gear at an outdoor cafe at the Loew's Hotel on South Beach.
Other things in Rush's world are not as they appear. For example, lobbyist Lucia Dougherty, whom he hired about eighteen months ago, is not a lobbyist. "She's a lawyer," Rush says of Dougherty. "We have not hired any lobbyists." To bolster that argument he notes that he has paid Dougherty, who makes a living winning zoning variances from the city commission, only about $20,000 for her assistance. Miami commissioners are considering a new law to legalize the approximately fifteen wallscape signs currently deployed, including Rush's, and about thirty-five others. The new measure would require sign companies to pay the city a $10,000 fee, to be used by the city's Arts and Entertainment Council to promote arts and entertainment.
Rush says one important thing to remember is that there is a big difference between a billboard that covers a wall and a standalone billboard that blocks something else. "We haven't done anything to impact the view of the landscape," he submits. Rather, Metro Lights, which is based in the very billboard-intensive borough of Manhattan, takes a blank, "in some cases ugly," wall, and beautifies it, Rush adds. "We think we've added vitality to the city."
Still, there are striking similarities between wall billboards and non-wall billboards. Miami zoning officials issued Rush and other wallscape advertisers permits for their signs, even though city and county laws passed in 1985 prohibit any new expressway billboards south and east of I-95. "The first thing we did was file for permits," Rush says. "We didn't come in the middle of the night and do it." Starting in 1996, Miami officials also issued permits to Carter Outdoor, Viacom, and Miami Outdoor Advertising for more than twenty illegal expressway billboards in the prohibited zone. (Despite the watchful eyes of Miami's tireless code enforcement inspectors, sign companies have managed to sneak up at least three new illegal non-wallscape billboards in the restricted area in recent months, raising the ire of county commissioner Katy Sorenson. Last month she sent a memo to county manager George Burgess, saying she was appalled by the development, which she termed an "affront to this government." "These three egregiously illegal billboards join the many others that the City of Miami allowed to be erected in recent years, in violation of long-existing law." She called on Burgess to prepare legislation to "assert" the county's right to enforce its sign ordinance in Miami and other municipalities. "We are a nation and community of laws. These violations of our sign ordinance do not equate to differences of opinion between your staff and various municipal officials," she scolded. "These violations are an affront to this government and to the outdoor advertising regulations promulgated by the Board of County Commissioners in 1985.")
Another resemblance: Whether a sign is against wall or sky, if visible from an expressway it can generate $10,000 to $20,000 per month. And regardless of billboard location, that kind of cash flow is handy when someone from the mayor's office phones to ask for a campaign donation. Like this past September, when Rush received a call from Otto Budet-Murias, one of Mayor Diaz's aides, asking for a contribution to help fund the county's general obligation bond campaign. Rush gave $10,000 to the Neighbors Building Better Communities political action committee. Another outdoor advertiser, New Jersey-based Wallscape Media, also donated $10,000. (The PAC raised a total of $1.1 million in about six weeks.) Rush dismisses any suggestion that his contribution was in any way related to the pending legislation to legalize his signs. "I respect this city too much to think that I would have been in trouble if I didn't write that check," he says. "Sometimes people do things because they're the right thing to do," he says.
A third similarity: Miami-Dade County's planning and zoning director, Diane O'Quinn Williams, says the wallscapes are just as illegal as the others. "We consider those billboard signs," she affirms. "They have to be spaced a certain distance from one another. They can't be near expressways. They have to be on certain zoned properties. They're too large. A whole bunch of things. They don't comply."
Which raises a final comparison between Rush and the non-wallscape counterparts with whom he has so little in common. Like them, if the county or any government orders him to remove his signs, he will sue. "And we will win," he assures.
But he'd rather not take that route. "I'm a young guy trying to make a living and I believe in this city. It's not a dirty thing to have commerce."
At press time, the city's ordinance to legalize Rush's billboards was on hold, pending discussions between O'Quinn-Williams and Miami officials.
The Miami Model for Sign Business Start-up
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz is sticking with his pledge to run city government like a business, which means that sometimes businesses run the government. The Illegal Billboard Plan, which continues to work well for several CEOs, consists of the following steps:
1. Put up billboards near expressways, even if they are illegal.
2. Secure permits from city zoning officials, even if signs are illegal.
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3. Contribute generously to political campaign of the mayor's choosing.
4. Press city commissioners for new law to make your illegal signs legal. (Numbers 2 and 3 can be inverted.)
5. When you realize that it is a county law that governs billboards, press county commissioners for new law to make your signs legal.
6. If all else fails, sue the bastards.