Coming soon to a township near you

A full year ago, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford mused about the potential for advertising in schools. With all that space in gymnasiums and cafeterias, corporations would surely line up to pay – or so he thought.

As is typical in politics, a segment of followers thought the idea was a stroke of brilliance. New revenue like this would help avoid increases in property taxes – in the interim anyway, maybe.

Detractors were written off as left-wing zealots after they suggested advertising in schools was yet another sneaky way for corporations to take over the minds of young consumers and influence their parents’ buying choices. The notion that kids are in school to learn didn’t hold much sway either.

Like most issues in Toronto, it was a lot of bluster over not too much. Ford has no say in schools anyway.

The incident provides a reminder though, of the fine line that exists between the cost-effective delivery of government service, the charging of user fees and the gray areas that emerge when politicians go along with the notion of “new revenue streams.”

Oddly, advertising offers up the easiest option. From booklets and benches, to websites and brochures, to murals and blank walls, advertising is an easy sale.

The deployment of electronic signs has led some municipalities to abandon standard flat signs in favour of interactive displays that can have a changing message at any time. The technology is awesome, but imaginations can run a little wild.

Puslinch council recently received a report from its parks and recreation committee touting the potential of commercial ad spots on the sign in front of their community complex.

On paper it looks like a heck of an idea; what’s not to like? Rec chair Wayne Stokley pointed to other communities that have put up such signs and began generating revenue from businesses. We could not discern if those funds will be split between the county, Optimist Club and township, who were partners in the sign.

The experience in Centre Wellington with interactive signs has been mixed. Its own sign bylaw speaks to third party advertising, apart from a community event, as being a no-no. Some word was raised about liability concerns should the sign be too interactive and distracting.

The Chamber of Commerce here has been running third-party ads for some time seemingly in contravention of the township’s own bylaws. But, as one member lamented, we need the money – it’s a new source of revenue. If a private business were to engage in this practice we can only imagine how quickly the sign police would act. And there’s the rub. Government or its affiliates or its favourite non-profit groups should not get a free pass.

Messages on publicly purchased signs should stick to community activities or municipal services to ensure that a sense of a level playing field exists in the community.

Any time the opportunity exists to pay a little more to get a little more, there is potential for hard feelings,  especially when it comes to publicly funded projects. The chamber too, as a non-profit body, should be wary of promoting extras where those willing to pay a premium get a leg up on just a plain member.

Community events, support local business slogans and welcome messages for visitors would seem a far more proactive, positive chamber activity than generating a few ad dollars to benefit individuals.

Further, we would hate to be the township staffer stuck telling a business or group that their ad was refused or their business was being censored because their product or service was perhaps not mainstream enough to be featured on a public sign.

While we appreciate the sentiment of developing revenue streams, there needs to be boundaries and some common sense.

If anyone suggested leasing the Tooth of Time in Elora, or the nice stone walls in Templin Gardens for promotional signage people would be aghast.

Sports fields and other green spaces the public enjoys are hardly appropriate venues either. Every town has a special place that is too special to sell out, but the temptation for new revenues will continue to mount as a tax-weary public continues to balk at higher taxes.

Since little effort seems to be spent at the council table reviewing programs and best use of capital to actually save money, we fear even more revenue generating schemes in the future.

Word is on the street that one council anyway is looking at some other business ideas to enhance revenues.

Stay tuned, there will surely be some dandies.