Amid promises from a billboard executive that billboards would be cleaned up and two older prominent ones removed, the Unified Government Commission tonight passed a revised billboard ordinance allowing electronic billboards.

According to UG officials, changes to the ordinance were under negotiation almost to the start of the meeting.

If it all works as planned, residents will see more electronic billboards on the interstate highways in Wyandotte County, and fewer old-style billboards in Kansas City, Kan.

Commissioner Hal Walker, who led the effort, and Mayor Mark Holland referred to the old billboards in Kansas City, Kan., as “blight.”

The goal was to eliminate some of the older billboards while allowing newer electronic billboards in the community, according to Doug Bach, UG administrator. A ratio was proposed, for every new electronic billboard allowed, older ones had to be eliminated.

A billboard executive who came in from Chicago, Mitch Matson, a vice president of Outfront Media, formerly CBS Outdoor, promised that with the initial construction, older billboards at 18th and Minnesota and at 7th and Central would be removed.

A Kansas City, Mo., representative of Outfront Media said that after the last commission meeting, he looked at the existing billboards of his company, and updated several. Several were converted to a new style. When the weather is warmer, the ones that need painting will be painted, according to the representative.

Bob Fessler, Midwest territory manager for Lamar Advertising, said the two companies had reached an agreement on a ratio of billboards prior to tonight’s meeting. The earlier agreement was 1.5 to 1 on Lamar’s larger signs, and Outdoor would participate at 2 to 1. But there were some new changes he was concerned about. One item was corrected that might have allowed someone else to come in and build another billboard on the site of three old billboards. Then, he wondered about the cap of five digital billboards per company that was raised to seven.

No county has more than six digital billboards in the metropolitan area, he said. If all were built out, there would be 14 digital billboards on the three interstates in Wyandotte County, he said. There will be a lot of digital billboards fairly close together on the interstates, he believes. He asked why the cap was raised from five to seven digital billboards.

According to Bach, the new ratio of 2.5 to 1 and raising the cap to seven would mean the elimination of close to 85 of the older billboards in the city, if all the new ones that could be built were built. With the objective to take down more of the urban billboards by allowing two more digital billboards, the UG would increase the number of billboards taken down, according to Bach.

Mayor Holland said there were 115 billboards in the urban core of Kansas City, Kan., and by raising the cap two, this allows about 85 of them to be eliminated. “We can take out 80 percent of the blight in the community just by raising the cap two billboards,” he said.

“I’m not a big fan of billboards, but I think this is a great compromise for the companies to be able to digitize and for us to reach our objective of getting rid of the urban blight in our area,” Mayor Holland said.

The billboard changes were approved on a 6-0 vote, with three commissioners absent. A second ordinance defining electronic billboards was also passed. However, the ordinance setting occupational fees for those who work in the billboard field was delayed until a future meeting, as the UG attorney said it would need eight votes to pass and there were only six commissioners present.

In other action, several planning and zoning items were passed on the consent agenda, and the animal control ordinance passed 6-0 without further discussion.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Holland made a statement about his staff member’s involvement in last week’s casino grant funding topic. He said he looked into the situation. He mentioned a statement that Commissioner Ann Murguia had made at the last meeting about issues at a neighborhood meeting.

“I would like to offer assurance that I have confidence that my staff member acted appropriately and that her statements were misconstrued at the meeting,” Mayor Holland said.

He said he would like commissioners to bring issues to him before the meeting to discuss in private.

“It looked to me like, commissioner, that you were looking to bully a member of my staff, and I found that unprofessional and inappropriate,” Mayor Holland said.

He adjourned the meeting, and no further public comments were made.

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Special guest at 12th Street Jump was Jim Mair, director of instrumental music at Kansas City Kansas Community College. Supporting Mair were 12th Street Jump musicians Joe Cartwright (piano), Tyrone Clark (bass), and Mike Warren (drums).

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by Mary Rupert

Uncork Kansas, a lobbying group for grocery and convenience stores, will try again this year to get a bill passed allowing strong beer and wine to be sold at grocery and convenience stores.

The bill was introduced in the Kansas House Federal and State Affairs Committee Jan. 28, and was awaiting assignment for a hearing, according to the bill’s supporters.

The bill has been unsuccessful in prior years, opposed by mom-and-pop liquor stores in Kansas, which say they will be hurt by such a change in the laws.

Currently, groceries and convenience stores cannot sell anything stronger than 3.2 percent beer, backers of the legislation say. Across the borders in Missouri and Nebraska, consumers can buy stronger beer at convenience stores and groceries.

The bill that was introduced also would allow existing liquor stores to sell their liquor license to grocery stores or convenience stores in their county, according to Uncork Kansas.

“We feel very confident that 2015 is the year we will finally pass Uncork Kansas legislation, and we know that Kansans are eagerly awaiting the passage of this bill,” said Jessica Lucas, a spokesman for the effort. She said there is a lot of consumer support for it.

She said she thinks of the bill as mostly a “beer bill,” allowing groceries and convenience stores to sell regular beer or “real beer.” The chairman of the drive is David Dillon, former CEO of Kroger.

Lucas said the license provision in the bill gives liquor store owners all the power, and they will not have to sell their licenses to grocery stores. The bill also allows liquor stores to expand and sell items such as chips. Also under the bill, a person or company could own more than one liquor store.

“Our state and our country were founded on free market principles, and people shop where they get the service that’s important to them, whether it is customer service, price or selection,” Lucas said. “Those market decisions are made every day by consumers. We believe they want to be able to decide where to shop and not to have the government dictate where.”

Manu Rattan, owner of the Village West Discount Liquor store at 11010 Parallel Parkway in Kansas City, Kan., said this bill would probably put half of the liquor stores in Kansas out of business. These liquor stores, all owned by Kansas residents, would be replaced by chains that would be sending the profits out of state, he said.

While Uncork Kansas argues that it would be more competitive to allow grocery stores and convenience stores to sell liquor, Rattan says there’s more competition now.

There are 750 liquor stores in the state, owned by individuals who live in their local Kansas communities. If half of them go out of business, they would be replaced by a few chain stores, he said.

“I don’t see how to make it any more competitive than it is now,” Rattan said.

There are mom-and-pop liquor stores in Kansas that have been there for multiple generations, and that is how the people have made their living, he said.

Rattan’s liquor store is within a half-mile of Walmart and Sam’s Club, which sell groceries and so would be allowed to carry the stronger beer and wine.

“Here’s what will happen,” Rattan said. “I have a very large store, I invested a lot of money in my store. I employ 15 employees. They (Walmart) are not going to come and buy my liquor license. They are going to buy a liquor license from a store on its way out of business, make a low offer to him, and they will open up right next door to me.”

The change in the law could put him and the store’s employees out of work, while it would not necessarily create any new jobs at the groceries and convenience stores, he said.

Rattan said that a change to allowing groceries and convenience stores to offer stronger alcohol than 3.2 percent beer would not generate any additional tax revenues for the state of Kansas, since liquor is already widely available here.

“Just because they can buy it at a grocery store does not mean they’re going to start drinking more,” he said.

Rattan had questions about whether 16-year-olds and 18-year-olds would be allowed to sell liquor and wine at grocery stores and convenience stores. “Do we want to have 18-year-olds handling liquor?” he asked. Currently, employees working in liquor stores have to be 21. Rattan also asked if liquor customers would have to go to a different line at a grocery store, one where a cashier is 21 or older.

Lucas said she has heard that one store across the state line in Missouri had said 30 percent of its business is from Kansas, but there was no firm evidence of how much business, and how much sales tax, may be going across the state line.

Rattan said there is no actual data on Kansas persons buying liquor across the state line. Since there are no liquor products the chains are selling in Missouri that are not being sold in Kansas, he doubted that this argument is valid.

The Unified Government is not taking any position on this bill, as it is not expected to affect the amount of revenues it receives, according to Mike Taylor, UG lobbyist.

State Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., said he is not in favor of the bill. He said liquor is already widely available at liquor stores in his district, and the bill could adversely affect the small mom-and-pop liquor stores.