Invasion of the Cheap Seats

One morning in 1944, Carl Mayhue crossed the Las Olas bridge and gave birth to what may have been the nation's first commercial bus bench.

"I saw these old people standing around in the sun waiting for the bus," Mayhue recalls. "So I went back to my buddies at the Junior Chamber of Commerce and said, 'I've got a new project. Let's build benches and set 'em out on the corners for people to use.'"

To defray some of the construction cost, Mayhue and his confreres charged hardware stores and shoe shops $17.50 per year to paint their names on the first 125 street seats.

Today as many as 12,000 bus benches clutter South Florida's urban landscape, many of them amounting to little more than baby billboards positioned far from any bus stop. That's because there's big money to be made on the backs of those benches, through $100-per-month paid advertisements touting everything from pawn shops to political candidates.

After World War II, civic groups throughout the United States adopted Mayhue's program. But what began as a selfless civic project became increasingly profit driven as service organizations like the Jaycees farmed out the bus-bench business to private contractors in exchange for a small cut of advertising revenues. Roadside benches multiplied, and the ads attached to them got bigger. In 1960s Miami, bus benches spawned their first private-sector millionaire.

Mayhue spent 19 years on Fort Lauderdale's sign-advisory committee, intermittently railing against his own invention, to no avail. He continues to stew.

"I did not think this up and work my butt off in order for private businessmen to make a profit on it," he snorts. "Somewhere along the line, the vultures took over. These benches are tacky." Mayhue isn't howling in the wind. An increasing number of cities are questioning whether the public interest is really served by bus benches that exist as much for advertising purposes as for public convenience. Two years ago Hallandale decided to phase out ad-inscribed benches along Hallandale Beach Boulevard as part of a beautification project, replacing them with 20 new ones that don't carry ads. Making the switch has cost the city $500 per bench. The local chamber of commerce, which used to get a portion of the advertising revenue, estimates it has lost nearly $4000.

Around the same time, the city of Sunrise cracked down on "misplaced" benches, requiring that the private contractor who supplies and maintains 125 of the roadside seats position them within 15 feet of an actual bus stop. A few municipalities, including Coral Springs, Miramar, and Boca Raton, ban bus-bench advertising altogether. "We decided people didn't really want them," says Miramar Mayor Vicki Coceano. "The city is mainly residential, and people just don't want to see these things in front of their houses." Every year or so, a private company tries to get a franchise for bus benches, Coceano notes. "So far we've resisted it."

Still, resistance can be tough. Hollywood, with perhaps the highest concentration of bus benches in Broward County, recently passed strict new laws governing newspaper racks, part of an effort to sweep its streets of visual clutter. But bus benches and their miniature billboards live on. At the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and the Ronald Reagan Turnpike, benches with garish ads occupy every corner but are rarely sat upon.

City commissioner John Coleman says the time has come to get rid of bus-bench ads but concedes he so far lacks enough votes on the city commission to change the law.

"I think people have come to the conclusion in Florida that maybe this was OK at mid-century, but not any more," Coleman says. "Four or five weeks ago, we went up to Virginia Beach, where there are no bus-bench ads at all, and it was refreshing to walk along their boardwalk and not see some stupid ad staring you in the face for something you don't want in the first place."

One reason bus-bench advertising persists is that cash-strapped cities get a share of the ad revenues. In Hollywood the current contract promises to return $310,000 to the city over five years from the 475 benches scattered around town. The local Jaycees will get $20,000 per year for lending their name to the project.

Another reason an ad ban hasn't succeeded in Hollywood is hardball politics, Coleman claims. Three years ago the normally quiet bus-bench business got noisy for a while when a new company called Gold Coast Bench Inc. launched an assault on Bench Ads Media, which held a South Florida monopoly at that time. Glenn Flutie, a champion tournament fisherman and cousin of Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie, was one of the upstart competitors. His partner was Austin Forman, scion of Broward County's most politically active family.

To combat Gold Coast's political pull, Bench Ads Media hired former U.S. Congressman Larry Smith, a well-connected lobbyist and political consultant who pleaded guilty in 1993 to federal tax-law violations. Bench Ads also hired state representative Steve Geller, brother of Miami-Dade Democratic Party boss Joe Geller.

When the dust settled, Forman and Flutie wound up with multiyear bus-bench franchises for the cities of Davie and Fort Lauderdale, the latter valued at $3 million. The company also captured the contract for unincorporated Broward County. Bench Ads Media retained Hollywood, reportedly worth $2.4 million in revenues, as well as several other municipalities.

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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Sean Rowe