Local Businesses Take Issue with High-Tech Kiosk Plan

Leaders in St. Petersburg, Fla., see informational kiosks as a way to show visitors around, but some business owners see them as a direct threat to prosperity.

by Caitlin Johnston, Tampa Bay Times / October 26, 2018

(TNS) — Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to bring digital information kiosks to downtown. But some business owners and council members aren't sure those digital displays fit the city's vibe.

Known by the clunky term Digital Information and Broadcast Systems, these kiosks have popped up in cities nationwide, including Baltimore, Denver and Kansas City.

The touch-screen kiosks are a hybrid of a mall directory and a giant smartphone. Depending on the brand, the rectangular devices can stand up to 8 feet tall. They display a mix of information, including events, restaurants, transit maps, public safety alerts — and, yes, advertising.

Some business owners wonder if the kiosks will add another layer of signage to downtown that would distract patrons with flashy advertising — or perhaps even change their minds about perusing local businesses.

"The small businesses have long expressed concern that there could be an advertisement outside their store promoting a competing business," said Tami Simms, former president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Business Association.

The mayor defended the idea, saying the kiosks are just a way to use new technology to communicate with residents and visitors alike.

"To me, it's not about signage," he said. "This is about being able to put out real-time events and public service announcements. Letting people know where our businesses are in the city and how do you get there, or when is a bus coming."

A rendering shows what an interactive information kiosk could look like in downtown St. Petersburg. The digital displays, which are used in cities like Baltimore and Denver, provide information about stores, restaurants, events, transit and public safety. [City of St. Petersburg]

The interactive displays will list different places to eat and shop, offer detailed maps and provide local transportation information, such as bus routes and times. They’d also serve as a mobile hot spot, providing Wi-Fi for anyone nearby.

If the council approves the plan, Kriseman expects the city will install about 20 different kiosks downtown and at other hubs, such as Tyrone Mall or the Carillon Office Park.

City staff briefed council members on the idea during Thursday's meeting of the council's budget, finance and taxation committee. Council member Gina Driscoll said she's already heard concerns from constituents who believe the extra signage will be more of a distraction than an asset.

"There are so many other ways people can get information about the city," Driscoll said. "(Business owners) would rather be directly engaged than having something else that prevents someone from walking into a store."

The kiosks would mix local information with paid-advertising, which would cover their cost and spare taxpayers the expense. Deputy mayor Kanika Tomlin said it's still unclear how much advertising would be displayed. The amount of ads shown varies between the different companies offering kiosks.

The city already issued a request for proposals to solicit firms who would install and manage the kiosks. Those proposals are due Nov. 6. Committee members asked staff to come back in February with some proposals and more community input.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said there is a difference in how locals might view the kiosks compared to visitors.

"The reaction I get from folks here is, 'It's more signs, why do we need more signs?'" Gerdes said. "I try to explain to them that with a big part of our economy being tourism, we're trying to be friendly to folks who don't know their way around."

An interactive digital kiosk in New York City. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman would like to install similar devices in his downtown, but business owners fear flashy digital advertising will distract potential customers. [City of St. Petersburg]

Former city council member Jeff Danner criticized the proposal on social media prior to Thursday’s meeting. He said the positive aspects of the kiosks — informing locals and visitors about events in the city — could be overshadowed by digital advertising. And what if that advertising was being driven by corporate franchises instead of locally-owned St. Petersburg businesses?

"We do not want or need to open our beautiful pedestrian corridors to corporate advertising," Danner wrote. "Keep St Pete the special unique place it is."

Kriseman, who has used the kiosks in Denver and Kansas City, insisted that the kiosks' digital information would still be focused sending people to local businesses.

"If anything, I think it will be great for local businesses," Kriseman said. "The purpose of this is to communicate … the advertising is almost an afterthought."

©2018 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.).Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.