SCHENECTADY — Are electronic billboards gimmicky visual pollution or a surefire way to boost business?
The technology has taken root in the city, high-definition displays that beam a colorful rotating carousel of graphics, photos and promotional messages out into the public sphere.
But with its proliferation, city planners are discussing if they should tighten regulations and incorporate smarter planning principles in order to keep up with the technological advances.
City Planning Commission Chair Mary Moore Wallinger said the signs can be distracting and contribute to visual clutter, particularly in neighborhoods that pride themselves on a charming blend of unique architecture and walkability.
“They’re really visually offensive when you see them together,” Wallinger said. “You don’t notice a bunch of flashing cheap ads basically that all change — there’s a real chance you’re getting an obnoxious slideshow of junk.”
Electronic billboards — not the blinking LED signs commonly displayed in small shop windows — are still somewhat uncommon in Schenectady.
Current units clock in at 20-or-so, according to the city planner, not including Cumberland Farms signs that rotate gas prices.
Some of the city’s most prestigious venues are equipped with the signage, including Proctors, Rivers Casino & Resort, Mohawk Harbor and the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority-run parking garage on Broadway.
Numerous small businesses utilize them as well.
Outside of Wedekind Motors on Friday, Charlie Brown and Snoopy offered passing motorists a dose of Thanksgiving cheer.
With a $70,000 price tag, the dealership made a significant investment in the device three years ago, said president David Elmendorf, who views the sign as an important spoke for community outreach.
“It’s more than just an advertising billboard,” Elmendorf said. “We feel that’s very important.”
Elmendorf’s golden retrievers have also made it into the display, broadcasting to customers that the business is pet-friendly.
Across town, Northeastern Fine Jewelry has the only electronic billboard in the Upper Union Street Business Improvement District.
The unit has indisputably helped sales.
“For a small business in Schenectady, it’s been astronomical,” said Scott Castelli, director of operations.
One event advertised on the billboard brought in 30 or 40 customers. And it's been so successful at times, the retailer has scaled-back on some of the targeted advertising campaigns they’ve traditionally used to attract customers.
Northeastern Fine Jewelry also uses the signage to promote charitable events and thank guests.
“We’re letting the community know we’re giving back to certain charities,” said sales manager Janine Fox.
Other business owners said the signs can offer a much-needed boost in dense urban settings with dozens of businesses seeking to stand out amongst the competition.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Ralf Torkel, owner of Hair Design by Ralf stands with his business sign in the background Friday, November 22, 2019.
For International Hair Design by Ralf, their sign resulted in a fresh blast of awareness for the long-time salon located near the Crosstown Plaza.
“People didn’t notice us until we got the sign,” said general manager Eric Torkel.
Smartphones present a bigger threat to public safety than electronic billboards, he said.
The salon’s front window looks out onto State Street, offering a clear view of motorists queued up at the stoplight, many of whom tinker with their devices.
Eric and his father, owner Ralf Torkel, said they have witnessed three accidents in the past two months.
“The distraction is basically coming from the cellular telephone,” Ralf said. “People are becoming addicted.”
The city Planning Commission, who informally discussed the restrictions on Wednesday, indicated they aimed to find common ground between unrestricted usage and banning the signage completely.
Commissioners informally reviewed concepts that would limit their usage, including distance and hour restrictions, brightness settings and prohibiting PowerPoint-style effects like dissolves and fading.
Several upstate cities have adopted regulations governing the technology.
Utica requires lights to be “steady in nature,” and prohibits flashing or moving images.
Statutes in Mount Vernon allow electronic billboards and illuminated signs, but essentially appear to neuter their effectiveness by restricting their usage adjacent to residential premises or roadways.
Digital billboards are banned outright in Queensbury except for price signs at fuel pumps.
And after denying a local business’ request to install a high-resolution LED display billboard on a downtown office building, the City Council in Watertown will consider establishing a one-year, citywide moratorium on electronic signs until the city decides on a policy, the Watertown Daily Times reported last week.
In Schenectady, the signs are largely unregulated.
Once the city Planning Commission issues a special use permit, operators are required to maintain a dwell time of eight seconds between transitions.
Despite the rule, Wallinger acknowledged most of the existing units are in violation.
“The more we can limit them, the better,” she said.
The Planning Commission has taken heat for not doing more to enforce the current regulations.
City resident David Giacalone has asked commissioners for months to crack down on violators and has called for smarter digital sign regulation.
“We need to speak up and insist that being business-friendly should not mean forfeiting effective regulations on technology that offers little to the public and often no real advantage for businesses over conventional signage,” Giacalone wrote last month in a Daily Gazette op-ed.
Others agreed the issue should be addressed, but haven’t yet endorsed a specific strategy.
"We have to look carefully at them,” said Schenectady United Neighborhoods President Tom Carey. “I hope the [Planning] Commission and city moves slowly, and I would hope they provide appropriate regulation on those types of signs."
Commission members plan on meeting with the City Council’s Planning and Development Office and city Corporation Counsel’s Office to discuss the next steps.
“The bigger question,” said Commissioner Richard Ferro, “is how do we get the City Council to agree on anything?