Friday, September 26, 2014

No Confusion Between Foxboro and Vegas Signs

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, September 26, 2014.
By Bill Gouveia


            You never know what can wind up being controversial in a small New England town.  But there are some things that always raise the anxiety level in seemingly every community.


            Put a leash law on the Town Meeting warrant and watch the fur fly.  Try cutting sports from the school budget and be prepared to see some hard-hitting action.  Discuss spending money on a new town hall and feel the walls closing in on you. 


            But right behind those is another soul-searching issue currently making the rounds in Foxboro, with voters perhaps being faced with determining its fate soon.  Yes, we are talking about the highly subjective and always sensitive issue of – signs.


            More specifically billboards in this instance, with technology adding fuel to the fire.  Be they political, business or just general signage, these advertising tools always seem to capture a somewhat disproportionate section of the attention spans of town officials and residents.


            Signs may be emotionless creatures, but the feelings they can stir in others are amazing.  They tend to be highly personal to both those who own them and those who merely have to look at them. 


            Put a political sign in your front yard and watch what happens.  Malls and restaurants depend on unique and colorful signs to draw people into their locales.  A few years back in Norton, there was much ado about a rather ordinary CVS sign not blending with that community’s “colonial character”.


            But now digital and LED signage has risen to become the focus of the Foxboro debate.  The town already has such a billboard, located on Route 1 near North Street in the shadow of Patriot Place.  A proposed new sign bylaw would allow for others, but pretty much restrict them to the Route 1 corridor.


            For those unfamiliar with the concept here, these digital billboards are extremely clear and colorful.  In some cases they are almost like large televisions.  They certainly do draw a lot of attention.


            You might think this would be the perfect area for the latest in advertising technology, given the amount of commercial activity and traffic drawn to the area.  Route 1 – especially in the general vicinity of Patriot Place and Gillette Stadium – has not projected the image of a small town for decades now.  And it is no stranger to billboards.


            In fact, the town itself is involved in a complicated and bitterly contested arrangement with the Kraft Organization in which both make money from renting out billboards.  But some in town are much more concerned with the aesthetic impact upon their community than the financial one.


            To be sure, there are legitimate concerns about electronic signs and everyone is more than entitled to their own opinion.  Some believe they are a safety hazard and a distraction, although between the GPS screen, satellite radio, mobile phones, digital dashboards, and back-up cameras, that might be a little difficult to swallow.


            Others believe they are simply in bad taste.  Foxboro calls itself “The Jewel of Norfolk County”, but many officials and citizens would not like to see jewelry ads actually moving on a billboard as they drive the busy Route 1 roadway.


            Foxboro Advisory Committee chairperson Tracey Vasile recently revealed that a strong majority of her committee members “had concerns about additional electronic billboards on Route 1.”  Committee member Larry Thomas expressed his disapproval of additional electronic displays, reminding everyone “This is a New England town, not Las Vegas.”


            It’s a good thing he cleared that up.  At the Patriots game Sunday people were getting confused and asking for directions to The Strip and Caesar’s Palace.  I mean, seriously?  Is there anyone who really thinks the stadium section of Route 1 could possibly look like a small New England town anymore?


            The truth is electronic signs fit the character of Route 1 in the stadium area.  A handsomely made wooden sign with colonial overtones would actually look out of place.


            Fear of both change and technology is not new.  But when you allow an area in any town to become a commercial shopping destination and home to an NFL team, it is hard to continue to accept the tax revenue it produces and at the same time ban the signs that help raise it.


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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