A proposal to build a massive billboard at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge is getting pushback from some Camden residents and community groups who believe the sign would mar the Philadelphia skyline.
Interstate Outdoor Advertising, based in Cherry Hill, wants to erect a 167-foot-high billboard in North Camden near the Delaware River waterfront, said CEO Drew Katz. Messages on its two digital screens would target thousands of northbound commuters who travel across the bridge daily from New Jersey into Philadelphia.
It is believed that the venture would be the first of its kind in the country, with all proceeds from advertising sales, about $200,000 annually, earmarked for nonprofits in the city. The billboard would be used to create a permanent funding source for charitable groups, Katz said.
"We're really trying to do something unique for the city of Camden," Katz said Friday.
But the company needs a zoning variance from the city to proceed with the proposal, which has come under growing opposition from some residents and grassroots community groups who have started a petition seeking to block it. The redevelopment plan for the parcel of land at Elm Street and Delaware Avenue where the billboard would be put prohibits billboards.
Katz said the billboard would cost about $800,000 and take about six months to build. The company has obtained a state permit for the project and reached an agreement with F.W. Winter Inc., a metal and alloy manufacturer that owns the land where the billboard would be built, he said.
Opponents say the billboard would drastically change the architectural landscape of the area and create an eyesore for commuters, bridge runners and walkers, and residents who live nearby in North Camden and the Cooper Grant neighborhood. They also contend the billboard would hamper economic development in the area.
"It lessens the quality of life. It's not worth it," said Felisha Reyes Morton, cofounder of the North Camden Little League and a longtime resident who lives just a block from the proposed billboard site. "I just think there are other ways of helping Camden."
At a meeting on Monday, Interstate representatives gave a power-point presentation of the plan to the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association and answered questions. The group voted unanimously to oppose the proposal, said resident Benjamin Saracco.
"This is an example of something Camden residents don't want," Saracco said.
Katz, the son of Lewis Katz, a Camden native and philanthropist who gave millions to his hometown, said he came up with the billboard proposal as a way to carry on his father's legacy. The elder Katz, a co-owner of the Philadelphia Media Group, publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News, died in a plane crash in May 2014.
Under the proposal, nonprofits would be eligible to apply for grants from a nonprofit board that would be created to disburse revenues generated from billboard ads, Katz said. The nonprofits will benefit right away — even if it means we recoup our investment over years, he added.
"We are aware of partnerships and revenue-sharing arrangements between out of home media companies and local entities, including schools," said Nicole Randall, a spokeswoman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. "This is the first we're hearing of a partnership in which 100 percent of the proceeds are donated."
Some Camden groups expressed support.
"If it's good for the town and it's going to raise money for good projects we're all for it," said Steve Schultz, chief of staff for the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley. "We serve thousands of people in dire need in the city."
The Camden Lutheran Housing Inc., a nonprofit in North Camden, has not been contacted by Interstate, said Jessica Franzini, associate director of community initiatives. In 2017, the group launched a campaign, "Change the Message," to put positive messages on existing billboards and she worries about the messages that would flash on a new digital billboard.
"We would not accept the money," Franzini said. The needs of North Camden residents come first, she said, "not free money."
Katz said he understood the residents' concerns and that additional meetings are planned with residents and community groups to seek their support and allay concerns about the impact of the digital lighting of the billboard. The billboard pole would be painted the same color as the bridge and the messages would face east and west and not toward neighborhoods, he said.
"Our motivations are only pure here. I respect the passion and the concern of people who … believe they will be negatively impacted," Katz said.
Resident Jacqueline Vicente, whose family has lived in North Camden for four decades, and opposes the billboard, said her mind is made up.
"They won't go to Cherry Hill and do this. But it's OK to put up a billboard in the middle of Camden?" she said.
The city zoning board is scheduled to address the issue at a meeting May 7 at 5:30 p.m. Edward Williams, the city's planning director and zoning officer, did not respond to telephone and email messages Friday. Vince Basara, a spokesman for Mayor Frank Moran, said the mayor has not taken a position on the matter.
"It's not his decision. This is a zoning board process," Basara said Saturday. "He relies on and trusts them to make the appropriate decision based on the law."
Katz said he hopes the billboard proposal would be used as a model by other businesses to support charitable groups across the country. Camden, however, has had a tough track record recently with attempts to erect billboards.
In 2001, a Superior Court judge overturned zoning permits that would have allowed seven billboards along Interstate 676 in Camden. The action came after resident Frank Fulbrook sued to block the construction, arguing that the highway was a scenic resource and should be preserved billboard-free.
The proposal in that case would have allowed Matt Outdoor to place seven billboards on the interstate between the Walt Whitman Bridge and Chestnut Street. The ads would have been displayed over an area 16 by 60 feet and the billboards would have been 50 to 70 feet high.