Council backs 2 downtown digital signs

Billboards on a Court Street building in downtown Watertown in 2019. State Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk is working to get state approval for converting two Court Street billboards to digital signs. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — State Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk has been working on getting state approval for converting two billboards on top of a Court Street building to digital signs.

Last year, the state Department of Transportation decided it would not allow local businessman Jake Johnson to convert two standard billboards on his building because it would violate the federal Highway Beautification Act.

The DOT controls outdoor advertising along Route 3 and in the downtown business district.

But Assemblyman Walczyk, R-Watertown, has been lobbying the DOT to change its mind. The City Council has been asked to support allowing the two electronic billboards.

Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith has asked for a resolution be placed on the Monday night agenda that encourages local state legislators to introduce legislation that will allow the LED signs.

“I don’t have an issue with it,” Mayor Smith said, adding that council members had no objections with it when it first came up during the summer of 2020.

The mayor noted that a handful of other businesses have illuminated signs along Arsenal Street, with one just a few blocks away at Big Apple Music.

If they’re allowed, the signs would be grandfathered in because they already exist as standard billboards, he said.

Mr. Johnson, who owns multiple pieces of property in downtown, called the electronic billboards “a community asset” if the state allows them.

The two digital billboards could be used by local businesses, nonprofit organizations and the city to promote and market themselves, he said.

The digital signs would be “more efficient” than the two billboards on the building now, Mr. Johnson said. It now costs $700 and takes one to three weeks to have a crew to go up on the building to physically create the advertising messaging on them. That work could otherwise be done automatically “in a moment’s notice,” Mr. Johnson said.

Assemblyman Walczyk lives in and owns the adjacent downtown building.

The state DOT has a series of rules that billboard owners must follow, a consultant told the city last year.

Mr. Johnson could only have digital billboards if they advertised businesses in the Court Street building and not for any other “off-premise” businesses.

The Highway Beautification Act was prompted in 1965 when there was a proliferation of billboards in the country and First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson wanted to limit them.

The sign at Big Apple Music is not a billboard, so it’s allowed.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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