You either love them or hate them. Or maybe you just sip your Big Gulp and whiz right by them.
Drive east from Columbia on Interstate 70, and you’ll see more than 200 billboards displaying ads for gas stations and tourist shops, funeral homes and tractor supply stores.
You’ll also see more than three dozen that advertise nothing at all, including one jaundiced sign that reads, in bold black print, “FREE.”
Shane Grasser, an electrical contractor from St. Peters, owns the billboard and four others along I-70. He bought them five years ago, about the time a billboard-building binge flooded the market — and the state’s main artery — with roadside advertising. Grasser said he has so much trouble renting his signs that he offers them to advertisers free for the first six months.
“There were some companies that went in there and just put them anywhere,” he said. “That doesn’t do anybody any good.”
With some 12,000 billboards, Missouri has about three times as many billboards per highway mile as any of the eight surrounding states, according to Karl Kruse, president of the anti-billboard advocacy group Scenic Missouri. That’s clearly too many, Kruse said, not just for highway travelers, but for the billboard companies themselves.
“Along I-70, there are so many billboards the billboard industry is literally giving the space away,” Kruse said.
Indeed, it’s a buyer’s market for billboards in Missouri, especially in rural parts of the state. While billboards along the roads leading into Columbia, St. Louis, Kansas City and tourist areas can still fetch $3,000 per month, ad space along rural parts of I-70 goes for much less.
The Tic Toc Shop, a clock store with locations in O’Fallon, Ellisville and Mehlville, rents five billboards for about $300 to $500, depending on the location, owner Carol Shultz said. John Meier, a real estate agent in Warrenton, rents one sign on I-70 for about $375 a month.
Number of signs has jumped in recent years
Bill May, executive director of the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association, acknowledges that supply exceeds demand in some areas of the billboard market right now. May blames Scenic Missouri’s 1997 and 1999 attempts to ban billboard advertising in Missouri. The 1997 petition didn’t get enough signatures to make the ballot. In 1999, the ban did make the statewide ballot but was narrowly defeated. Still, billboard companies hedged their bets by building as many signs as they could.
According to the Missouri Department of Transportation, following Scenic Missouri’s 1997 attempt to ban billboards, permits were issued for about 90 more signs than in 1998. After the 1999 attempt, 350 more permits were issued in 2000 than in 1999 – a jump of about 250 percent.
“When you have a situation where you think might lose your right to have outdoor signs,” May said, “it’s not really surprising that you would have that kind of result.”
May said 40 blank billboards out of the 200 along I-70 east of Columbia is not bad in the billboard business. An 80 percent occupancy rate is typical, and for a rural stretch of highway, it’s above average.
“That’s probably the only highway where you would have an 80 percent occupancy rate,” he said.
Of the occupied billboards between here and Warrensburg, many have been rented in bulk. Drivers taking I-70 to St. Louis pass six signs, each displaying a single letter to spell “MIZZOU.” In the other direction, drivers see four signs for Phillips 66 with a swirling message that comes into focus with each billboard.
Elliott McDonald, a Missouri-based company that owns the Mizzou billboard series, rents out about 90 percent of its 950 billboards, said co-owner John Elliot. The company keeps its occupancy rate high by specializing in large, modern, lighted signs that are built on demand. Other companies, such as Lamar Advertising, which owns more than 5,000 signs in the state, often buy up existing signs in Missouri, whether they have customers or not.
“They’re not big on building new structures,” Elliot said about Lamar. “They just take on older structures.”
Excess supply hard on private landowners
Many billboards are still constructed and maintained by private landowners, who also face challenges when there is a glut of empty signage.
Many buyers and sellers of billboard space rely on “billboard brokers” like Chris Brewer, president of Find a Sign in Springfield. Brewer has designed a sort of billboard match-making service to help renters find good deals on outdoor advertising space. Find a Sign collects a finder’s fee from billboard owners. The company also helps advertisers find deals on billboard artwork.
“In a nutshell, we’re kind of like a real estate agent for outdoor media,” Brewer said.
Business could get tougher for billboard owners. Although attempts to outlaw new billboard construction have failed, mandates increased the spacing between signs two years ago, from a 500-foot minimum to 1,400 feet. The legislation also requires new signs to be built near businesses.
The law just about put a halt to billboard construction, said Brewer, who expects the gap between supply and demand to narrow.
Still, he said, billboards remain empty for so many reasons — disputes with landowners, architectural headaches, low visibility — that it would be impossible to see all of them occupied.
“There’s always going to be an empty wooden sign in a farmer’s field,” he said.