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Business 

Signs of the Times

Driving back to Kansas City from St. Louis on I-70 recently, a newspaper commentator and his wife counted 61 billboards that were blank or had no paid advertising.

Advertisers' growing fascination with online media is part of it.  But the economic downturn continues unabated for the outdoor advertising/billboard industry, resulting in their worst profit drop-off in three decades.  An industry analyst expects those 14-by-48 foot billboards along a highway near you to have vacancy rates in 30%-land, which translates into a 15% revenue decline this year.

One of the bigger signs--around 100 feet tall--can cost about $200,000 to install; add the cost of insuring it and any substantial down time means balance-sheet red ink.  Companies large and small are responding by mothballing their least profitable locations, downsizing staff, and shelving high-tech display upgrades.  Louisiana-based Lamar Advertising, third-largest billboard operator nationwide, has closed 1,800 billboards and smaller displays but still reported an $11.8 million second-quarter loss.

Many companies would like to revitalize by moving to the luminous, LCD-style signs, but are being thwarted by cost (twice that of a conventional sign) and opposition from some states and communities that view the flashing and animation as a nuisance and traffic hazard.  Banks have been less than enthusiastic about providing financing.


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