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Millcreek fighting over plan to add digital billboards to the new city center

Leaders struck a deal with Reagan Outdoor Advertising, but Planning Commission is resisting.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Millcreek is considering a deal with Reagan Outdoor Advertising to remove traditional billboards and replace them with three digital billboards that would be at entry points to the new city center currently under construction. Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

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Millcreek • Two metal beams shoot skyward at the edge of what will become the new city center. This land eventually will include an ice skating loop, an amphitheater and Millcreek’s City Hall.

These beams are not part of the city’s future. They are the base for an existing billboard and just about everyone agrees it needs to be demolished. But there’s a growing dispute over how to accomplish that.

City administrators struck a deal with the billboard company, Reagan Outdoor Advertising, to remove this sign and five others in exchange for allowing three digital billboards at the entrances for what is called Millcreek Common.

These signs would be owned by the city, but Reagan would pay to build and maintain them in exchange for controlling 60% of the messages shown for the next four decades.

“This is a good trade,” said Mike Winder, the assistant city manager.

As it stands, Millcreek doesn’t allow any digital billboards, so it would require action by the City Council. The idea is marching through the public process, where it has faced opposition from some residents, including those questioning the ties between the mayor and the billboard company.

It has also run into opposition from the Planning Commission, which held a marathon meeting this month in which the members took public comment and voiced their own concerns. Those commissioners want the city to slow down and consider alternatives, while administrators want a decision in just a few weeks, concerned that a delay could disrupt construction.

Commissioners argued the city should consider condemning the billboard within the Common and pay Reagan to remove it. And commissioners, like Aryel Cianflone, say these signs don’t fit with Millcreek’s vision as a place that connects the valley to its stunning canyons.

“I just can’t imagine feeling connected to nature when I see a different ad every eight seconds,” she said. “I haven’t heard anything that convinces me that this is a good deal for Millcreek.”

What’s in the deal?

(Courtesy of Millcreek) A rendering shows a proposal being debated in September 2021 to replace traditional billboards with three digital ones at entrances to Millcreek Common, the city center under construction.

Dewey Reagan, president of the billboard company, wants all to know this exchange wasn’t his idea.

“I approached Reagan,” Winder said, “and have worked with them over the last six months.”

The city reached out because of two issues. The first is the 35-foot-tall billboard at 1333 E. 3300 South. It sits where the city envisions a grand entrance to its town square. The second problem is with the adjacent land. Reagan has the right of first refusal if it is sold. The city is trying to swap it with a developer in exchange for the land that would become City Hall.

Reagan was willing to compromise, saying his interest is “making sure that our rights are protected and that whatever the resolution is is equitable” to his company. Two sides did reach a tentative agreement.

If approved by the City Council, Reagan would remove the billboard at the Common by Nov. 1 and drop its legal hold on the nearby land.

It would also agree to remove a big sign at 1325 E. 3300 South and some smaller ones on Highland Drive. Two signs stacked on top of each other near Wolcott Optical would go as would two even smaller stacked ones just to the south.

In exchange, Reagan would build three digital signs at the three entrance points to Millcreek Common. The company would pay to put them in, cover the monthly electricity costs and any maintenance. It would agree to limit the kind of ads it would sell. Nothing for a political candidate. Nothing sexually oriented. And only alcohol signs on which the city signs off.

The signs would include technology to limit the amount of light emitted during the evening and that would block a person from seeing the ads if they were standing to the side of the signs instead of in front of them.

After 40 years, the deal would end and the city would have full control.

Where’s the mayor?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini during a Millcreek City Council meeting in 2017. The mayor says he has recused himself from the billboard negotiations.

Years ago, Mayor Jeff Silvestrini did legal work for Reagan Outdoor Advertising and his wife, Leslie Van Frank, still does, through the firm Cohne Kinghorn. She’s also listed as a lobbyist for the billboard company.

Reagan donated advertising to the mayor during his two campaigns. His involvement with the company has led to repeated and persistent accusations that there’s a conflict of interest in his administration’s negotiations.

The mayor said he’s let his staff handle this one.

“I have not been personally involved in negotiations of the transaction under consideration,” Silvestrini said in a statement. “I have already publicly recused myself, including from participating in any council discussion or voting upon the matter.”

In Millcreek, the mayor is a voting member of the five-person City Council.

The mayor added, “I would never (and have never) put the interest of Reagan, or any campaign contributor for that matter, over the interest of Millcreek residents and doing what is best for our city as a whole.”

Dewey Reagan said the connections between his company and the mayor haven’t affected the negotiations “in any way.”

Some residents have also questioned Winder’s involvement.

Winder is not only the assistant city manager, he’s also a member of the Utah House, representing West Valley City. He accepted campaign contributions from Reagan in 2016 ($1,000), 2017 ($700) and 2019 ($700).

He said he has no conflict of interest in negotiating this deal, though he did say his personal relationship has helped.

“Reagan knows and trusts us. They’ve interacted with me for years and years,” Winder said. “They may not always like the way I vote or the stances I take that might be anti-billboard, but they know that I keep my word.”

Winder said he opposed a push last session to allow billboard companies to transition any traditional sign to a digital sign. The effort got bottled up in the Senate and never made it to the House.

Still, the Legislature has made it increasingly difficult over the years for cities to remove billboards. And when a company does give one up, it can “bank” the square footage it lost and build another sign nearby at a later time.

Why Millcreek administrators back this plan

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction on the Millcreek Commons project on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

Winder expected the proposal would lead to pushback and not just because of the accusations over conflicts of interest.

“We know that billboards are a contentious issue,” he said. “I know it’s a tricky issue and I know there’s a lot of emotion behind it from different folks.”

But he believes officials struck a deal that is fair and benefits the city.

“If you hate billboards, you should support this proposal because it’s reducing the number of billboards in Millcreek,” he said. Currently, the city has 51 billboards.

His argument to community councils, planning officials and the City Council is that this compromise allows for the construction of Millcreek Common to move forward quickly. It gives the city signs for free. It gives the city another way to advertise events. And, yes, it lives up to the city’s stated goal to reduce the number of billboards, by removing static signs for these digital ones.

“This is a mutually beneficial trade,” he told the Planning Commission on Sept. 16. “That benefits the city more than Reagan.”

His hope is that the council debates the proposal on Oct. 11 and signs off on Oct. 25. Reagan then would remove the first sign, the one blocking construction at Millcreek Common by Nov. 1. If that doesn’t happen, it would impact the city’s construction timeline and potentially delay building City Hall.

“There’s a whole cascade of challenges that the city would inherit,” he said, “if we’re not able to come to an amicable agreement with Reagan.”

Why the Planning Commission isn’t persuaded

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Millcreek is considering a deal with Reagan Outdoor Advertising to remove traditional billboards and replace them with three digital billboards that would be at entry points to the new city center currently under construction. Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

On Aug. 18, the Planning Commission took the unusual step of sending the City Council an open letter on this issue.

“Our advice: slow down,” it read.

The commission met roughly a month later and delivered a similar message. Winder and the city wanted the commission to support changes to city code that would clear the way for the digital billboards.

Commissioners, on an 8-1 vote, punted the issue to a future meeting. They also voted 8-1 to request “conflict counsel.” They want an independent attorney to advise them on this issue. That request is now before the city. The commission’s support isn’t required for this project to move forward. It provides recommendations to the City Council.

To do so, commissioners want more information. They want to know how much the sign on 3300 South is worth, so they could consider an alternative to the negotiated deal. That would be condemnation, the city taking the land and paying Reagan fair market value.

Commissioner Dave Allen argued the city should have started the condemnation process to take the billboard “six months ago, or three months ago, we can start it anytime we want.” The commission was not swayed by Winder’s argument that condemnation would take months and could cost the city more than $1 million.

The commission also received public comment, with most opposing the digital billboards.

“It seems like we are trying to be a for-profit company, not a city,” said resident Jacob Hathaway. “Let’s be a community and do what is best for everyone, not just Reagan. You can’t tell me this isn’t great for them.”

What the City Council thinks

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Millcreek City's first mayor Jeff Silvestrini and city council members; Sylvia Catten, Dwight Marchant, Cheri Jackson and Bev Uipi recited their oaths of office at a ceremony kicking off a celebration of the community becoming the 17th city in Salt Lake County, Tuesday, January 4, 2017 at Wasatch Junior High.

With Silvestrini on the sidelines, it would take three of the remaining four City Council members to approve this deal. And that is possible, maybe even likely, though the members emphasize they are still receiving feedback.

Council member Dwight Marchant sees a whole lot of good in this draft agreement. The city doesn’t have to pay for the signs and gets to decide what messages are shown 40% of the time. Sure, he’d like the 12-by-24-foot signs to be a bit smaller, but “sometimes you don’t get everything you want.”

And most importantly to him, Reagan has agreed to remove those traditional signs. “Frankly, we are getting rid of billboards, and that’s our goal.”

Marchant bristles at the Planning Commission’s request for an outside attorney, seeing it as a move that will cost money and lead to delays.

“A lot of people on the Planning Commission just don’t like digital signs,” he said. He argues with new technology to reduce light and limit visibility, he’s fine with them.

“People are concerned about it being a really obnoxious Las Vegas-type feel, and I don’t think it will be that way,” said Cheri Jackson, another council member. While she’s still gathering information, Jackson said she’s “encouraged” by the chance to reduce the number of billboards in the city.

Silvia Catten, another member, said she’s “inclined to give attention to any creative arrangement” that reduces billboards.

Bev Uipi, who has received in-kind contributions from Reagan in the past, did not respond to a request for comment.

The council approved its existing billboard ordinance in February 2020, with Silverstrini and Uipi in opposition. That ordinance, backed by the Planning Commission, placed new limits on the height of billboards and where they could be located. That ordinance is also the one that banned digital signs.

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