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Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005 07:50 am

Signs of the times

Former mayor Karen Hasara says she regrets the billboard moratorium

Former Springfield Mayor Karen Hasara remembers the ample bosom that got people’s panties in a twist.

The cleavage belonged — and still does — to Terry Harris, a North End native and owner of a local lingerie and adult-video store.

There was Harris, a former model, clad in leather, bent over and holding a whip. The racy image was plastered on giant billboards along Jefferson Street and Wabash Avenue.

At the time, some five years ago, Hasara was working to pass an ordinance banning billboards from the capital city.

Hasara credits the lingerie billboards with creating a public outcry and attracting media attention.

“Those billboards got the public riled up and allowed us to take on the initiatives,” says Hasara, who is now retired.

Hasara’s beautification program, called Scenic Springfield, made a series of major revisions to the city’s zoning code.

Current Mayor Tim Davlin last spring announced his own beautification initiative, called Springfield Green, which promotes flower and tree plantings.

Davlin has since watered down parts of Hasara’s controversial ordinance for fear of impeding new development.

Despite Davlin’s tinkering, the restrictions placed on billboards under Hasara’s administration have proved effective.

No new billboards have been built in the city since Hasara’s ordinance passed more than three years ago, says city zoning administrator Joe Gooden.

That’s because the city now requires four billboards to be removed for one to be built. Restrictions on the size and location of new billboards are also tight.

“The ordinance is as stringent as you can get,” says Jeff Stauffer, an owner and founder of Mid-America Outdoor Advertising, which owns 110 billboard faces in the capital city.

But Hasara’s assault on billboards wasn’t a complete success. She had initially sought to get rid of most of the billboards within the city limits but backed off after being threatened with lawsuits.

Today more than 50 municipalities throughout Illinois restrict new billboard construction. But none has been able to force the removal of existing billboards.

A state law passed in the early ’90s dictates that billboard companies forced to take down their signs be given cash compensation — a requirement that has proved prohibitively expensive.

That’s why billboards continue to clutter Springfield’s major thoroughfares, including Clear Lake Avenue, Dirksen Parkway, MacArthur Boulevard, Sangamon Avenue, Stevenson Drive, Veterans Parkway, and Wabash Avenue.

In a way, Hasara admits, her efforts to prettify Springfield backfired.

In 1999, the former mayor called for a six-month moratorium on permits for new billboards. But in the two-week period before the moratorium started, billboard companies had a field day. Gooden says that the city issued 43 billboard permits during that two-week window. That’s more than half the number of permits issued during the previous six years combined, he says.

“The moratorium was a bad decision,” Hasara says. “We were overwhelmed by what happened.”

As for Harris, the former lingerie model and provocateur still has her Bad Girl Video store on Dirksen Parkway — and she’s still reaping the rewards from her initial advertising campaign.

“We wanted the billboards to cause a stir,” Harris says, “and it worked more than we ever expected.

“It was a tremendous boost to business.”

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