Officials aim to spice up city benches

The proposal would allow private companies to bid on courtesy benches.

by Haley Madderom

Nestled on street corners and crammed under bus stop signs, street benches provide an often forgotten backdrop for advertisements.

But an upcoming proposed change to city law could build revenue for Minneapolis and spice up a currently flat outdoor advertising market, according to the amendment’s proponents.

Ward 12 City Councilman Andrew Johnson and Ward 3 City Councilman Jacob Frey, who represents areas near the University of Minnesota, will introduce a change to Minneapolis’ regulations of courtesy benches at this Friday’s City Council meeting.

“Right now, we’ve got pretty standard vanilla benches. You throw some timber up, you slap a sign or an advertisement on there and you call it a day,” Frey said.

The amendment would open the door for private companies to bid on courtesy benches, which are public seats available for people who are waiting for buses or other vehicles.

There are at least 30 benches in the campus area, according to city data.

Bidders with the best design ideas would score a 20-year advertisement deal approved by the city, Johnson said.

Though private companies would keep a majority of the profit they make off courtesy bench ads, Johnson said the city would still collect a cut of the campaigns’ revenue.

The city currently caps the number of courtesy bench licenses at 700 per year, and U.S. Bench Corporation, an entity that has dominated Minneapolis bench billboard sales for more than 50 years, owns almost all of those advertised seats, Johnson said. After licensing fees, Johnson estimated the company earns  about $1,000 per bench annually.

“They have the market on lock,” he said. “With lack of competition, you see a lack of innovation.”

When those seats become strictly a tool for outdoor advertisement campaigns, Johnson said, they sometimes stop serving Minneapolitans’ needs.

“They’re for public use,” Johnson said. “Now, if you put a bench where a bus route isn’t, then that bench basically becomes a street-level billboard.”

Metro Transit, which owns most city bus shelters and the benches inside them, recently bought out the majority of a national outdoor advertisement company’s agglomeration of Minneapolis sites, Metro Transit spokesman Bruce Howard said.

As a result of this deal, Metro Transit now owns what Howard calls “C” shelters — structures designed with advertisers in mind that downgrade weather protection in favor of more ad visibility.

Though Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr said the company doesn’t expect to be affected significantly by the courtesy bench ordinance amendment, the company intends to address public concerns over bench placement and bus stop amenities.

Johnson said he and Frey will seek input, particularly from student transit users, on what kinds of public designs they would like to see on the city’s seats.

“Our creative capital is through the roof, and you can see that reflected in all the ideas … coming out of the ‘U,’” he said. “For us to be stuck with the most uninspiring, utilitarian benches out there … and it’s making one company a heck of a lot of money … it’s ridiculous.”