They’re called the OBIE Awards — the Outdoor Advertising Association of America’s annual celebration of, ahem, the best the billboard industry has to offer.

And if you want to know why so many Mainers are up in arms about keeping the Pine Tree State billboard-free, look no further than the campaign that won “Best of Show” (http://www.oaaa.org/awards/bestofshow11.aspx) at the annual OBIE presentation two weeks ago in Miami Beach.

One billboard shows a half-eaten corn dog with a larger-than-life bottle of Pepto Bismol protruding from the middle.

Yum.

Another shows a shish kebab with the Pepto squeezed in between the beef and vegetables.

Yummier.

One judge called it “brilliantly executed.”

“To see the Pepto sandwiched between very appetizing food and knowing exactly as a consumer that ‘Aha!’ moment when you saw it and you say, ‘Great food — and I’m going to need the Pepto,’ ” gushes Francois de Gaspe Beaubienin, chairman and CEO of Zoom Media and Marketing, in an accompanying video. “All in one image. All instantaneous. Outstanding execution.”

Excuse me for a moment. I think I’m going to need a Pepto.

Most Mainers haven’t thought much about billboards in the three-plus decades since we banned them from Kittery to Fort Kent. Spend enough time traveling our scenic highways and byways and you can easily take for granted the postcard-perfect vistas that make this state so darned good looking compared to, say, New Jersey or … well, let’s leave it at that.

But as two lawmakers learned the hard way last week, billboards gone are by no means billboards forgotten.

A pair of proposals aimed at loosening up the restrictions on commercial roadside signage have become a flash point between those who see Maine as a pristine Vacationland and those who see an uncluttered roadside as an underperforming piece of real estate.

The first bill (L.D. 1367), sponsored by state Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, aims to restore Maine’s crumbling secondary roads by channeling various revenue streams into a dedicated Secondary Roads Fund.

Some of the funding sources — fines from traffic violations, an extra $10 for vanity plates, redirecting a chunk of the state’s Highway Fund from the Department of Public Safety to road improvement — at least are worthy of discussion.

But the one that’s raised the biggest ruckus — erecting and renting out billboards along state-owned highways — emerged from Tuesday’s hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee already in tatters.

“Our brand is not the billboard. Our brand is the environment,” Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview last week.

Connors, who served as Maine’s transportation commissioner back when the billboard ban took effect in 1977, told lawmakers the chamber opposes any loosening of the ban because “time has rendered that to be a very good decision, a right decision, that has fit very well with how we see ourselves and how other people see us in terms of the importance of the environment to our state and how it fits into the business agenda.”

And Connors wasn’t alone. In addition to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which correctly noted that a tiny smartphone can do the work of thousands of billboards these days, Thomas’s bill drew oppositon from the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Tourism Asssociation and the Maine Innkeepers Association.

The committee even heard from the daughter of Marion Fuller Brown, 94, of York, who spearheaded the billboard ban as a three-term state representative back in the 1970s and is, to put it mildly, not happy to see her legacy threatened all these years later.

“Having those billboards come down, she considers it to be the highest of her public accomplishments,” Emily Fuller Hawkins of Deer Isle said in a telephone interview.

And while her mother was unable to make last week’s hearing, Hawkins added, “It is distressing.”

All of which left Thomas, the bill’s sponsor, admitting by late Friday that he wishes he’d left billboards out of what he still feels is a much-needed piece of road-improvement legislation.

“You know what we’re going to do?” Thomas said. “When we go to work session (on Thursday), this is going to be the first thing we throw away. We have to, because we can’t let this stop us from fixing roads.”

The second bill (L.D. 1405), sposnored by state Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, also appears headed for a rewrite.

Keschl insisted for the umpteenth time Friday that “my bill is not a billboard bill.”

Rather, he said, it’s an attempt to help businesses use on-premises signage to bring in more customers from adjacent roadways — including interstate highways if a business happens to abut one.

Like Thomas’s, parts of Keschl’s bill just might make sense. For example, a clause extending the maximum distance between a sign and a business from 1,000 feet to 2,500 feet could very well help out small business without turning a scenic drive into a visual bombardment.

But other portions, most notably a provision that allows 400-square-foot signs to tower 100 feet over an interstate (the current height limit is 25 feet), now have Keschl searching for the delete button.

“I’m willing to pull that out,” Keschl said. “I listened to the testimony and thought, ‘Gee, that probably is an issue.’ “

Still, Keschl takes issue with those who suggest, without taking a close look at his bill, that he’s sacrificing Maine’s beauty for its business.

“I’m not looking to create visual pollution,” he said. “It’s a pro-business bill that doesn’t really impact the environment negatively.”

Keschl also can’t help but chuckle at those who decry the return of billboards on the one hand and support, say, wind turbines atop Maine’s mountain ranges on the other.

“You can see all 28 of them across Mars Hill from Route 1,” he said. “Tell me how beautiful they are.”

Wind turbines? Beautiful?

That depends on who’s judging.

But at least they’re not popping out of corn dogs.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]