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High-Tech Kiosks Have a Place in Aurora, Ill., Council Decides

Weeks of study and debate came to an end this week when council members voted to deploy eight informational kiosks early next year.

(TNS) — The city of Aurora, Ill., will get eight informational, high-tech kiosks with a variety of services, possibly as soon as the spring of 2019.

The Aurora City Council this week voted 11-0, with one abstention, to enter into a contract for the kiosks with Smart City Media LLC, of New York.

Approval came after weeks of study, meetings, debate and negotiations and another hour of discussion at this week’s city council meeting.

In the end, Alex Alexandrou, the city’s chief management officer, said city officials tried to take everyone’s interests into account when approving what people have alternately referred to as a community bulletin board, an electronic billboard and a virtual visitors center.

“We have done our best to add in the protections based on the concerns that were raised,” he said. “I think we have come a long way from where we started. We’re looking to create a tool that will increase foot traffic and interest downtown.”

The push for the kiosks came from the mayor’s office, and started at first as part of a drive to make RiverEdge Park a “smart park.” Alexandrou said city officials looked at four companies including Smart City, and were particularly impressed with what the company did in Kansas City, where the kiosks are not only distributed around the city, but have been put at the Kansas City International Airport, and at the University of Missouri–Kansas City campus.

“It quickly became apparent these had positive applicability to the rest of downtown,” Alexandrou said.

The mayor’s office first brought through the proposal as a memorandum of understanding with Smart City, with the understanding the two sides would negotiate a contract if the council approved the concept.

But aldermen twice held the proposal at the council level, wanting more detail and concerned that the memorandum would still commit the city to the kiosks, just as a contract would. In the meantime, other entities in town, particularly downtown merchants and property owners, said they should have been consulted earlier in the process.

Downtown businesses were particularly concerned that with Smart City selling national advertising it could actually undercut local business. Also, they said they would not be able to afford to advertise themselves on the kiosk, going by the prices originally quoted.

Alexandrou said this week he believed those concerns were dealt with in the contract.

The question of advertising was addressed with Smart Media agreeing that only 40 percent of the content on the kiosks would be from national advertising. The 60 percent left would be local content, either advertising by local businesses or information provided by the city.

Smart City also agreed that there would be limits on categories within the national advertising. So, only so much could go to large restaurant chains, for example.

The kiosks are informational, interactive facilities that are as much about wayfinding and promotion of downtown as they are about advertising revenue, Alexandrou added.

The kiosks would include wayfinding information using a map and directions that people can access on their own. It also would include a menu, on which all businesses and attractions would be automatically included.

Alexandrou said the company is making the ad rates lower for local businesses, and the rates would be included in the contract and could not be changed unless the city agrees. He added that Aurora Downtown is considering buying up local advertising time to distribute to its members.

Those provisions seemed to be all right with downtown merchants and most aldermen. Ald. William Donnell, 4th Ward, said he had been told by officials from Aurora Downtown, the organization of downtown merchants and property owners, that they were fine with it.

But Ald. Judd Lofchie, 10th Ward, was unconvinced. He said he thought “it could hurt downtown businesses.” He also said he felt the kiosks were against specific provisions in the city’s ordinances prohibiting billboards and electronic signs downtown.

“I don’t know how we get by that,” he said. “We’ve got to play by our own rules. I think it sets a dangerous precedent.”

Richard Veenstra, Aurora’s corporation counsel, said the city’s ordinances actually refer to kiosks specifically, and do not appear to give them the same restrictions as signs.

Ald. Michael Saville, 6th Ward, said he had the same concerns as Lofchie, but thinks the city has enough protections after the negotiations and discussions that have taken place. He also pointed out that the city has a precedent of allowing an electronic sign for Hollywood Casino.

Ald. Edward Bugg, 9th Ward, pointed out that Smart Media has only been doing this kind of work for four years, counting their pilot in New York City, and has only had contracts dating back 2½ years.

“It is a new industry, not something that has been around for decades,” he said.

Ald. Tina Bohman, 1st Ward, said when the idea was first rolled out, she was against it. But she said the items now in the contract “made it more amenable, at least for me.”

“I believe this would be an asset to this city,” she said.

The contract also eliminates giving Smart City Media exclusivity over informational kiosks. It draws a radius of 250 feet around each kiosk. Outside that radius, the city would be free to allow another company the right to put up informational devices, kiosks or other kinds of technology.

Smart City would pay all the upfront costs of installing the kiosks and getting them operational. The contract is for five years with an option for Smart City to renew for another five years. The city would get 25 percent of all advertising revenue, which officials have roughly estimated at about $700,000 over the 10 years.

Ald. Richard Mervine, 8th Ward, praised the city staff for doing what aldermen asked them to do by going back and getting more input. He also praised Smart City for being willing to move during negotiations.

“I hope we make sure we continue this feeling of involvement,” he said.

While city officials are doing eight kiosks as a pilot program, they admitted they could seek more locations later, possibly beyond downtown. Mervine said he could see as many as 12 to 16 kiosks in the future.

Alexandrou said because Aurora is considered “a regional hub” in the western suburbs, future kiosks could go by the Chicago Premium Outlets mall or at Fox Valley Mall.

The eight sites for the first kiosks are: RiverEdge Park; two at the Aurora Transportation Center; the Paramount Theater; the Aurora Arts Center; the city's new Development Services Center; the Water Street Mall outside city hall; and on the platform at the Metra station on Route 59.

The 11-0 vote by the council to enter into the contract with Smart City came about because Lofchie, who had said he opposed the contract, abstained. 

©2018 The Beacon-News (Aurora, Ill.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.