Invasion of the Cheap Seats

Ever since advertisers began plastering their names on bus benches, Broward County has been overrun by unwanted places to sit

Within weeks the new age of competition evaporated when Bench Ads Media bought out all of Gold Coast's new franchises.

"I wouldn't use the word monopoly, because there are other forms of advertising," says Eric Nadel, the 34-year-old self-made millionaire who runs Bench Ads Media with partner Ray Tomczak.

Before dropping out of college in Gainesville, Nadel went into business building weather-resistant bus shelters. The idea came to him when he was waiting for a bus in the rain a few miles from campus, he says. When he called the local transit authority, Nadel was told the government couldn't afford to provide a bus shelter. Before long, he was working at Burdines, conducting market research by night at the Broward public library, and mailing letters to every city in the United States offering to provide bus benches and shelters.

Nadel declines to reveal his company's annual revenues. He estimates that he donates between $25,000 to $50,000 per year to charities and about half that to the Democratic Party and individual political candidates. He continues to employ Pembroke Pines Mayor Alex Fakete as a lobbyist.

"The bus benches serve a very valuable purpose," Nadel insists. "People get a place to sit. The benches [earn] the cities money. Plus, it gives small local advertisers a place to advertise inexpensively."

On the other hand, Nadel agrees with Coleman that bus benches are an idea whose time has gone. Since 1995, there are 300 fewer bus benches in Broward and Palm Beach, even as bus ridership and routes have expanded. The benches themselves are more expensive to build these days, and the administrative and political haggling required to obtain and preserve franchises is more intense.

"I see it as a business that's fading," Nadel says. "The cities are getting a bad attitude toward the whole concept. There are a lot more beautification projects by municipalities. And we're caught up in a general movement against advertising."

With a sigh Nadel says he plans to sell out his business in the next five years -- the better to concentrate on cable TV franchises, cellular phone towers, and other forms of advertising.

"Hallelujah," says Carl Mayhue, gazing at an old photo of the very first bus bench in Fort Lauderdale.

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