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Blinded by the billboard?

FARGO - A new breed of billboards is quickly sprouting up in the Fargo-Moorhead area that is difficult to ignore.

Advertising has gone digital.

On the corner of 13th Avenue and 42nd Street is Fargo's first digital billboard, flashing different advertising images about every 7 seconds. While it's akin to a TV screen, the billboard is made from LED light bulbs controlled through the Internet and can show more than 12,000 exposures per day to passing motorists.

"This will enable us to be able to reach (advertisers) who want something quicker," said Kari Newman Ness, the CEO of Newman Outdoor Advertising based in Jamestown, N.D. "It's going well. They'll catch on."

The 13th Avenue billboard is one of three installed in Fargo in the past two weeks. The others are on 32nd Avenue South and 25th Street. Two more are in the works on Main Avenue and another on 13th Avenue east of Interstate 29.

While businesses have used smaller digital signs in the past, these are the first digital billboards in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

But some officials say new isn't necessarily better.

"I think they change it too much," Fargo Planning Director Jim Gilmour said of the billboard's frequency. "It is a concern for public safety."

He argues the new signs can be hazardous to motorists, distracting them more than the standard billboard.

Gilmour said he's received calls complaining about the 25th Street billboard. And while Fargo doesn't have an ordinance addressing digital billboards, he said he anticipates discussion about one in the next six months.

The billboard's owner counters that the signs are safe.

"They're not a hazard," Ness said. "We wouldn't have done this if we thought it was a public safety (problem)."

Proponents say these conspicuous ads are the future of advertising, kicking out yesterday's conventional billboards and changing advertising's appeal.

They allow advertisers to change copy rapidly during the day and allow billboard companies to have more advertisers.

But this new technology isn't cheap.

Ness wouldn't say what their billboards cost. But Steve Blake, the sales manager for Lamar Advertising in Black Hawk, S.D., said the price tag on digital screens ranges from $150,000 to $500,000.

To offset the initial outlay and operating costs, advertisers pay "a little more than standard billboards," Blake said.

Ness wouldn't comment on specific numbers, but said "the revenue is greater."

In recent years, digital billboards have taken the Twin Cities by storm. At the same time, they've created some unsettled debates over their effects.

In Minnetonka, digital billboards led to litigation in 2006 when city officials said an LED billboard violated city ordinance. That spurred a study by the League of Minnesota Cities to examine their effect on driver attention.

The study found that digital signs attract drivers' attention at greater distances and hold attention longer than conventional billboards. It also concluded that there is a relationship between outdoor advertising signs and crash rates.

The coalition advises cities to regulate signs, but doesn't formally oppose digital signs.

"It's up to each community to decide what's best for them," said Paul Merwin, an attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. He encourages cities "to think about it and make an informed decision about (digitalized billboards)."

Moorhead City Council members passed an ordinance last year on digital billboards that lists restrictions, such as that they can't obstruct visibility and they have to be 150 feet away from residential areas. But the ordinance "opted out of too much regulation," City Planner Deb Martzahn said. "Elected officials weren't particularly concerned about it."

Martzahn said that while Moorhead officials were familiar with the requirements imposed in other Minnesota cities, they were more influenced by the fact that Fargo doesn't yet have an ordinance.

While Moorhead doesn't have any digital billboards yet, Martzahn said she wouldn't be surprised to see one on the landscape soon.

That's one thing experts from all sides agree on: The shift to digital billboards is one the area can't ignore.