City offers marketers space on trash cans, website, water bills

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A Bank of America advertisement on the Wabash Avenue bridge house.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel not only wants to sell ad space on bridge houses and trash cans, he's looking at stuffing corporate fliers in water bills, selling exclusive vending rights at city facilities and allowing promotional sponsorships of public programs.

As part of the mayor's 2012 budget plan to raise $25 million from marketing the city, the Emanuel administration put out a call for marketing firms to help the city identify opportunities and negotiate contracts with potential advertisers.

The goal is "generating the maximum value for the City's corporate fund operating budget while limiting the social impacts of such advertising activities, including visual pollution, and preserving the continuity and integrity of the City's image," according to the request for proposals posted on the city's website last week.

That website, by the way, is among the public spots where people may one day find advertisers competing for their attention. So are street sweepers, snowplows, buildings, overpasses and traffic control boxes on sidewalks.

All of which worries observers who were upset at Emanuel's first try at generating ad revenue earlier this month by leasing space on the historic Wabash Avenue bridge houses over the Chicago River.

The result was red, white and blue signs for Bank of America stuck on to the limestone walls, where they will remain through Dec. 12. The city says it made $4,500 from the deal, but critics said it was an assault on Chicago's architectural heritage.

The lack of standards suggests that "anything is fair game," said Jean Follett, interim executive director of Landmarks Illinois.

"Whatever you ask we'll negotiate it," Follett said. "We've put ourselves in a corner; what you get instead of tax increases is fees and ads in your public spaces and in your water bills."

The city solicitation, which is only the initial step in the marketing plans, breaks public assets into six categories, including physical property, vending and product licensing, mail and the city's website. It offers little guidance on how to differentiate between the value of a trash can and public landmarks.

"The Mayor and his administration are exploring any and all innovative options that will bring new revenue into the City to avoid reductions in services the City delivers and any additional financial strains on Chicago taxpayers," Lois Scott, the city's chief financial officer, said in a statement responding to questions about the plans. "The city has numerous, diverse places and things to market, and we're ready to work together under the right set of guidelines to market what Chicago has to offer."

Former Mayor Richard Daley first proposed the idea of allowing corporate ads on bridge houses. The head of the company that won the resulting contract to market the bridge houses — leading to the recent bank ad — said the city can make money while protecting its landmarks.

"The overall impact of the concept in the long run needs to be sensitive to the needs of the city and maintain its architectural integrity," said Phillip Lynch, president and owner of Lincolnshire-based Fresh Picked Media. "There's pop art type executions that don't have to be as direct as advertising and are clever and add a theme."

Companies that sell breath fresheners could erect ads outside of restaurants, Lynch said, and gray traffic light boxes could be turned into gift boxes for the holidays.