Is Elm Street becoming Times Square?

by Amy Kingsley

A glossy banner ‘— roughly 15 feet by 30 ‘— hangs on an ivy-covered wall across from Suite 208 in the Guilford Building on Washington Street in downtown Greensboro. The screen has been dormant for the last four months, and whether it will remain that way hinges on a proposed amendment to a city billboard ordinance the Greensboro City Council tabled on April 25.

The projected sign, or community kiosk, debuted on April 1, 2005 to much fanfare; about 300 to 400 people showed up for a kickoff party, according to Shad Cockman of Now Marketing. The project combined community boosterism, information for downtown visitors and advertising, all cast onto the 450 square foot screen at the corner of Washington and Elm Streets.

‘“We did market research, compiled the data and kicked off with a huge party,’” Cockman said. ‘“For the first eight months, everything went great.’”

Sometime near the end of last year, Cockman and his company received a letter from the Greensboro City Board of Adjustment informing them that the kiosk did not comply with city ordinance. Section 30 of the city code prohibits outdoor advertising within the Central Business Overlay Zone, which is the area within one and a half miles of the intersection of Elm and Market Streets. Signs built before the ordinance was written are exempt.

Now Cockman and his partner Tony Lombardi are lobbying the city council to permit electronic projection signs within the central business district. Their proposal would allow up to 50 percent commercial material dispersed with community, educational and directional information. The inclusion of commercial content is the deal-breaker for one councilmember.

‘“This isn’t like a nonprofit,’” said District 3 Councilman Tom Phillips, ‘“These guys are trying to make money off this.’”

It’s a contention Cockman and Lombardi dispute.

‘“The bulbs alone are $500 a piece,’” Lombardi said. ‘“They have a fairly short lifespan. It’s an $8,000 projector, add the lens for another $15,000. We were actually losing money on this project.’”

Now Marketing specializes in corporate identity, marketing, design and branding. The company employs four people full time. Now, they are looking to partner with Fairway Outdoor Advertising to absorb some of the cost of running the kiosk. But first the council must approve the sign’s existence.

‘“Frankly I don’t want these electronic billboards downtown,’” Phillips said. ‘“We’ve done too much to improve downtown to let that happen.’”

Phillips said he hadn’t heard any support from other downtown business to keep the community kiosk. But another council member said the kiosk is a welcome addition to a growing business district.

‘“Having these signs to provide information about downtown businesses is just another example of a vibrant downtown,’” said councilman Mike Barber, who represents District 4. ‘“It will not look like Las Vegas, so we can just relax about that.’”

The marketing duo presented their proposal at a city council briefing session, where mayor Keith Holliday instructed city staff members to look into similar ordinances in other cities, Barber said. Cockman said electronic signs exist in Chicago, New York and a handful of California towns.

‘“The biggest thing I would say is this is not going to become a little Times Square,’” Lombardi said. ‘“That’s out of the question.’”

Although the banner is still hanging, waiting for the local government’s go-ahead, the political winds are not blowing in the marketers’ direction just yet, Barber said.

‘“In this community, we have a sign/billboard paranoia,’” Barber said. ‘“If someone mentions billboards, everyone sort of slips into visions of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.’”

Cockman said he understands the public’s fears.

‘“Nobody wants an eyesore,’” he said. ‘“And nobody wants an exception to the rule, because that’s not fair practice.’”

The two listed a number of nonprofit organizations they worked with over the eight months the kiosk operated: the Civil Rights Museum, Children’s Museum and Weaver Academy. The bulk of their advertisers were downtown businesses, Cockman said. Still, their appeals aren’t likely to sway many council members, Barber said.

‘“I think the majority [of council members] fears the Alfred Hitchcock movie,’” he said. ‘“Which makes me chuckle.’”

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