What started as a Stonington Public Schools request to install a new high school football scoreboard, with advertising sponsor panels attached, evolved into a more sweeping zoning amendment to permit advertising signage on both indoor and outdoor scoreboards, press boxes and fences at athletic fields. The advertising initiative was devised in an effort to offset the costs of under-funded school athletic programming.
Indeed, after three Planning and Zoning Commission meetings where the matter was discussed, and ultimately approved, last week the school board approved a McDonald’s ad for the press box slated to be unveiled for the Thanksgiving Day football game.
But not everyone is applauding and despite the school board’s go-ahead on the fast food ad, it did not appear on the PZC agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting for approval, required before the sign can go up.
At the Nov. 1 PZC meeting, member John Prue said the amendment is flawed, that it is a departure from the original request and it was rushed through in order to have the scoreboard with its ads in place before the game on Thanksgiving. This year, the century-old rivalry between Stonington and Westerly is played on home turf. And while Prue did vote to approve, he said that the text amendment needed to be revisited – as soon as possible after that game.
Back in July, schools operations manager Bill King told the PZC the Board of Education hoped to begin selling advertising space to cover the cost of installing the new scoreboard. At the time the commission explained that there was no zoning regulations that permitted the practice, but it agreed to allow planning and zoning staff to work with the schools and come up with a zoning text amendment that would allow ads, albeit ones with size and visibility guidelines.
The PZC agreed it would be unable to vote on ad content. Also at the time, the commission agreed that many fields already utilize large banner-type signage, like that found at both the Pawcatuck and Mystic little league fields, something not compliant with town zoning regulations.
The one commission member then to oppose the move was Ben Tamsky. He again voted against the plan at the November meeting. His position was commercial advertising was a slippery slope for the schools and the town and should be avoided. He said he was sympathetic to the plight of unfunded extracurricular programming but suggested, “If everyone in town gave a dollar,” that would be one way to raise funds.
And it just may be that it is the omnipresent fundraising that athletes are required to engage in that is also driving the ad program.
At last week’s Board of Education meeting, member Alisa Morrison said fundraising was “getting out of control.”
“I got six fundraising requests in one week,” she told the board.
This spring the town Finance Board agreed to set up a special schools account for any revenue realized from initiatives like the scoreboards advertising panels program.
The fate of which now remains unknown. As does whether fans in the bleachers at the Thanksgiving Day game will be facing a McDonald’s ad that reads: ‘Hungry as a Bear?’