A growing number of Fort Worth residents are resisting a recent city proposal to build digital signage in the Cultural District. In December, staff in the City Manager’s Office filed an informal report proposing a sign overlay district that would allow up to 10 digital signs to direct traffic and promote events at Dickies Arena, Will Rogers Memorial Center, and the museums.
The largest sign, a billboard proposed to be erected near I-30 and Montgomery Street, would stretch 70 feet tall and 35 feet wide –– dwarfing other billboards in the area. All of the signage depicted in artist renderings includes “Dickies Arena” emblazoned at the top. The structures are designed for architectural compatibility with other Cultural District institutions, the report said.
Establishing a sign district would mean city officials and Dickies Arena developers, led by Sundance Square mastermind Ed Bass, could erect signs larger than city regulations currently allow. And the digital text could change every eight seconds rather than every 20 seconds as permitted by the current ordinance.
Residents don’t need a 70-foot digital sign to get their point across. They’re spreading the word the old-fashioned way by blowing up phones and emails and urging people to attend upcoming public meetings.
Scattering digital signage emblazoned with Dickies Arena along the streets “changes the nature of our cultural center from being an international, classic museum cultural district into re-branding it as the entertainment rodeo district,” said Margaret DeMoss, a board member with the Cultural District Alliance, a chamber of commerce-like organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the area.
Nearby homeowners and businesses don’t want digital signage in a district known for top-notch museums and tasteful architecture, she said.
“I would hope the arena [developers] would listen to the citizens,” DeMoss said.
The city report said the signs’ messages would refer to Cultural District events only and include “traffic and event messaging, which will become increasingly more important and necessary with the opening of the Dickies Arena and the continued success in hosting events at the Will Rogers Memorial Center.”
Judy Harman, president of Scenic Fort Worth, said digital signage “doesn’t make sense” in this age of GPS technology. Scenic Fort Worth is a branch of Scenic Texas, an organization that works to build a strong community voice for quality-of-life issues.
“I don’t think many of us use signs to tell us where to go or how to get there or where to park,” Harman said.
Scenic Fort Worth and other groups were involved in working with city officials to create the current sign ordinance, which forbids billboards taller than 50 feet and digital signs with streaming text.
“There are ruffled feathers galore,” said a member of an area organization who asked for anonymity to prevent upsetting city officials who wield the power. “People are really pissed. Why do we need to muck up the landscape? It’s advertising.”
Others complained that the city proposal included little input from local residents and community groups.
“You showed us all these pretty pictures all these years [of arena plans], and there was never any of this signage,” said a nearby homeowner who also requested anonymity for the same reason. “Why all of a sudden at the last minute are you springing this on us?”
The signs won’t be built anytime soon. Some are designated for city parkland, requiring approval from the Park & Recreation Advisory Board. All of the signs will require a recommendation by the Zoning Commission and approval by the City Council, a process that could take weeks if not months.
“Now that the city and the arena [officials] realize there is opposition to this, they are going to have to have more meetings, and it may take longer than they anticipated,” DeMoss said.
She expressed confidence that elected officials would listen to the critics.
“We’re the ones who put them in office,” she said.
Councilmember Dennis Shingleton, who oversees the Cultural District, urged residents to attend public hearings to discuss the sign proposal, which isn’t solidified yet.
“We’re still working the process,” he said. “This proposed district –– and that’s what it is, a proposed district –– will have lots of neighborhood voice in this. They have to also understand that this arena project is functionally a business for the community. We’re going to have the most presentable, cogent, safe signage we can possibly have that is also compatible with that neighborhood.”
City staff introduced the idea of a sign overlay district with members of Event Facilities Fort Worth, a nonprofit that promotes agricultural sciences for the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show and is helping establish the arena. Mike Groomer, president and CEO at Event Facilities, said the proposal is a work in progress.
“What is out there right now is very preliminary in nature,” he said. “The intent is to talk these things through. There is a lot of process yet to go between now and the time it gets to a council vote.”
The proposal calls for up to 10 signs, but that doesn’t mean all will be built. The plan sets a standard for the future, he said.
“It adds a protection going forward that if someone came in 10 years from now and said, ‘We’d rather put the sign here’ … you’d have to go back through the public process,” he said.
City officials and arena developers are committed to keeping traffic out of nearby neighborhoods, and the digital signage will help, Groomer said.
The tallest billboard is slated for land near I-30 owned by the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. Garden Director Bob Byers expressed “mixed emotions” about the billboard, saying he preferred to keep the garden area natural. The Event Facilities leaders brought a large crane to hold up a similar-sized sign on the location where the billboard is pegged.
“We all walked around in the garden, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how well placed [the sign] was to not have a lot of impact in the garden,” he said. “Certainly, when you are up there in the shop area where you’ll be right next to it, and when you are in our weekend parking lot, it will be fairly obvious, but when you get into the garden, because all of the tree cover we have here, I was surprised at how little you will be aware of it.”
Is Byers for or against the signage?
“I’m neutral,” he said. “I understand the need for a way to make folks aware of what’s going on, and this [arena] is a major investment for the city, and we appreciate the importance of that. I don’t want to inhibit what they are able to do in terms of getting the word out to folks.”
Dickies Arena is being built near Harley Avenue and Montgomery Street just south of the Will Rogers complex. In 2014, Fort Worth voters approved a public-private partnership to build the multipurpose arena, a state-of-the-art 14,000-seat venue for Stock Show rodeos, concerts, sports, and community events.
The arena is set to open in November.
“Everybody is right to be excited and proud that this arena is going up,” Harman said. “It will be an economic generator, but are these signs really essential for that?”
City staff and arena officials will discuss the proposed signage in an open meeting with the nearby Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at Fort Worth Firefighters Hall, 3855 Tulsa Way.
Arena managers and city staff are “committed to listen to the people,” Groomer said. “We have a lot of process to go through. The arena wants to be a good neighbor and part of the whole neighborhood. We’ve got a lot of listening to do and a lot of work to do with the stakeholders.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: We have updated the article regarding digital signage. The original story said digital text could change once every 24 hours based on the city ordinance. However, the ordinance had been previously changed to every 20 seconds. We regret the error.