Downtown Baltimore gets first digital billboards in new district

At Charles and Lombard streets in downtown Baltimore, newly installed digital billboards flash images of art, ads and event promotions.

The two video displays on office tower facades, unveiled Tuesday by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, are the first in a digital sign network designed to enliven the business district north of the Inner Harbor and promote area artists, businesses and events.

During an event to usher in the city’s new “area of special sign control,” Downtown Partnership President Shelonda Stokes shared her first impressions of signs that now appear on buildings at 36 and 100 South Charles Street.

“I saw art. I saw information. I saw what we can do, and I saw opportunity for what’s going to be,” Stokes said. “We’re talking about ushering in a new day for downtown Baltimore.”

The city’s Planning Commission approved 11 big screen video signs more than a year ago for the newly created North Harbor Area of Special Sign Control, which runs from Pratt Street north to Baltimore Street and from President Street to Howard Street. The signs are slated for some of downtown’s most visible spots, such as the side of Power Plant Live! Besides the first two signs, six digital signs are expected to be installed by January, with another three expected by summer.

The Downtown Partnership, which sponsored legislation to create the district, says it envisions the media installations as a way to “create light, vitality and activity” while giving the city’s art community, small businesses and community groups a prominent platform. Property owners contract with sign companies, which rent building space.

Orange Barrel Media, an Ohio company that will install eight signs altogether in the new district, said it’s collaborating with BmoreArt to promote the arts community. Three additional signs are being installed by Capitol Outdoor.

The media companies have revenue-sharing agreements with property owners as well as with Downtown Partnership. The partnership will receive 5% of ad revenue, keeping a fifth of that while splitting the rest among the city’s four arts and entertainment districts.

The signs will generate city revenue through the existing billboard tax.

The partnership, which manages the sign district, plans to have a community advisory board review content for the billboards. Some of that already is coming from Visit Baltimore, Charm TV, BOOST businesses and The Squeegee Collaborative. Downtown Partnership will get 15% to 20% of screen time for art and civic promotion.

Faith Leach, the city’s chief administrative officer, called the signs “a big deal for our city” that can help attract conferences and visitors.

“These signs will allow us to share our story, not just the story of downtown, but the story and the legacy and the history of Baltimore,” Leach said during Tuesday’s event.

The installation of the sign at 36 S. Charles represents a “turning point” for the building’s owner, Zamir Equities, which purchased the tower in 2019 and has worked to get the digital sign since 2020, said Amy Jordan, the building’s property manager.

“As you all know, then we had COVID, and people exiting the city and a lot of tenants no longer coming to the office and rethinking their office space,” Jordan said. “For us, these signs are light. This is attracting people back to the city. It provides a sense of safety and security and hope. … It brings that light back to the city and hopefully will bring people back to enjoy the excitement. Think of it like a mini-Times Square.”

Jordan said three state agencies that were formerly at State Center will be moving into the the Charles Center South building, now at about 65% to 70% occupancy.

“We’re hoping to see that climb,” she said.

The signs will help enliven streets, promote public safety and “offer placemaking and branding opportunities for area businesses,” said John Hermann, vice president of asset management and leasing for COPT Defense Properties, owner of 30 Light Street, where a digital sign will be installed.

The signs will have dimming sensors that adjust to the time of day to soften brightness and also can be dimmed manually by the operator.

Jibran Shermohammed, vice president of development for OMB Media, said his company provides digital billboards in about 30 cities. Others places with projects similar to Baltimore’s include Atlanta, Boston and West Hollywood, all of which use signs for commercial advertising as well as community promotion, he said.

Baltimore’s new signage district sparked controversy during the approval process, with some downtown residents worrying that the billboards would be visible to residential areas.

For the last two decades, Baltimore has tried to avoid new billboards. In 2000, Mayor Martin O’Malley signed a bill capping the city’s billboard count at 900. Then, a coalition of city residents, including a then 12-year-old girl, led the push for the ban, which was the first bill O’Malley signed after taking office.

But a sign ordinance passed by Baltimore City Council in 2021 with almost no discussion by the council cleared the way for the downtown signs.

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