Can Natchez have hi-tech and history together?

Published 12:14 am Friday, November 9, 2007

Natchez is facing one of the biggest issues to hit cities across the United States in years.

If you took a quick spin through cyberspace you might be surprised to discover that the matter facing city councils from New York to California is not crime or taxes, but the digital billboard.

Last week, the Natchez Planning Commission recommended that these signs be banned in the city’s proposed development code.

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You don’t have travel very far from Natchez to see one of these new high-tech signs.

They are popping up all over the South including two in Baton Rouge.

In the past two years, Lamar Advertising has become the leader in converting old billboards into what amounts to large LED television sets beside the road.

According to the advertising industry, Lamar has been giving a digital makeover to signs across the nation at a rate of 28 per month in both small towns and large metropolitan areas.

At about the same rate or faster, advertising companies are developing new ways to capture drivers’ attention along the highway.

“Interaction” is the catchword among top advertising companies. Coca Cola, for example, has built signs that respond to the weather and respond with an animated wave that reacts to passing traffic. Makers of the Mini Cooper are developing a sign that alerts motorists on the highway when one of its fashionable cars is passing by.

All of this adds up to creating messages that attracts eyes and, in turn, dollars for billboard manufacturers.

At the same time it has attracted the attention of concerned citizens that say such advertising is better suited for the small screen and not the eyes of drivers speeding down the highway.

Tuesday night, Gulfport city leaders addressed the issue of digital billboards in that Mississippi Gulf Coast city and banned new signs due to safety concerns.

Leaders questioned whether something that is meant to distract the attention of drivers is safe for motorists on the highway.

It is a familiar scene in city council chambers across the country and one that will soon play out in Natchez.

Now that the city planning commission has recommended banning these signs in the new development code, it is now up to the city aldermen to decide the issue.

Digital signs are engaging and may be a smart idea. By being able to advertise multiple images, the number of billboards in town could be reduced.

Are they dangerous? I don’t know.

Unfortunately some new high-tech signs could be great additions to our cityscape.

In the past weeks I have visited numerous historic towns, from Suffolk, Va., to Knoxville, Tenn.

And in my travels it is those cities that weave the contemporary and the historical into a coherent whole that create engaging places to live.

Take St. Paul, Minn., for example. It is a town filled with historic buildings the town takes pains to keep. Yet they do not ban modern building and signage in an effort to preserve its history.

The Minnesota Public Radio headquarters uses a block-long scrolling sign along the street as a news ticker. It has become a sign that city workers look up to catch the day’s news. The park across the street has become a favorite spot for a bite to eat or moment to rest. It added vitality to the street.

It is unfortunate that signs like this could not exist under the planning commission’s recommendations.

While I admire and encourage efforts to keep the historic character of Natchez, I don’t think we can prevent new technologies and new ideas from becoming a part of our town.

To do so would turn our town into a museum, not a place where people live, work and shop.

Too many times, Natchez pits the past against the present.

Instead of either – or thinking, why can’t we have both – and.

We live in modern times and although we live in a town steeped in history, we live in a modern city.

As result we need ordinances that acknowledge the times in which we live, not shun them altogether.

Ben Hillyer is web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at