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Monday, February 16, 2009

DDI makes over Web site ... with electronic billboard

Posted by on Mon, Feb 16, 2009 at 4:55 PM

Note: Updated, with response from DDI President Bill Kalkhof below.

Today, Kevin Davis, the Bull City Rising scribe, notes a peculiar make-over at the Downtown Durham, Inc. Web site. The non-profit booster organization, which receives roughly 60 percent of its funding from the City of Durham, now features on its Web site a giant electronic billboard, replete with alternating flash images, soaring over a skyline of the Bull City.

"Coincidence -- or subtle marketing for the proposed changes allowing billboards in the Bull City?" Davis muses.

With questions swirling around a Georgia-based billboard company seeking to amend Durham's Unified Development Ordinance to allow electronic billboards, it seems an unfortunate time for DDI to roll out the striking re-design.

In addition to donating to candidates for both City Council and the Durham County Board of Commissioners, Fairway Outdoor Advertising--which owns roughly half the billboards in Durham--has doled out free advertising space to Durham County and DDI. (Last month, DDI reached no consensus on a vote to endorse the amendment, and later wrote to Fairway explaining the vote.)

In a January 2009 interview with the Indy, Kalkhof insisted that there is "no quid pro quo" between Fairway and DDI, which credits itself with influencing downtown development policy in Durham. In that interview, Kalkhof noted that the relationship between his organization and Fairway began in 2007, when Fairway provided DDI with free advertising for Durham Rising, a June 2007 event promoting downtown development.

“This has nothing to do with the UDO,” Kalkhof said then. “It was an excellent marketing opportunity. That has been our relationship.”

However, in reporting on the DDI re-design, Davis received a response from Matthew Coppedge, director of marketing and communications for DDI, that seems to contradict Kalkhof's timeline:

"This design was actually up long before Fairway was a partner with DDI and before we knew anything about the discussion with the billboards. We worked with Neural 9 Studios (located in downtown) on this beginning in August of 2007 with the concept coming from them at that time.  We received our first prototype of the site on 9/28/2007 and thought it was a very cool design, allowing for the full downtown skyline view and the changing nighttime scene (check the site after sundown).  Anyway, we launched the site in early 2008 after final design completion in November of 2007."

Davis writes that this should put the issue to rest--and, indeed, sometimes a re-design is just a redesign--but there's a missing link that Coppedge chose not to disclose. Neural 9 designed the Web site for Durham Rising, of which both DDI and Fairway were sponsors. (Full discolsure: so was the Indy.) And according to Kalkhof, DDI's relationship with Fairway also began with Durham Rising, when Fairway provided DDI with free billboard space for the event. In other words, August 2007, the date Coppedge offers for DDI's initial work with Neural 9, happened after DDI had partnered with Fairway--not, as Coppedge insists, "long before Fairway was a partner with DDI."

UPDATE @ 6:00 p.m.: DDI President Kalkhof called the Indy back shortly after this blog was posted. Read his response, after the jump.

In an interview, Kalkhof said that DDI does not refer to companies as "partners in progress" until they donate money to the organization. Because Fairway only provided in-kind donations (namely, billboard space) to DDI until 2009, when Kalkhof said the company made its first donation, they were not considered partners until this year, following DDI's in-house vernacular.

"Obviously you and your readers are going to read 'partners' differently than what we call partners," Kalkhof said. "When we speak of a partner, we're speaking of someone who's actually made a financial contribution to us. That is a contribution to say, 'We really like what you're doing. Keep doing it. No strings attached.'"

Kalkhof added that Fairway's donated billboard space, and Neural 9's Web design of an electronic billboard, are "separate and unique events." He said he was "surprised," when Davis e-mailed him for comment on the re-design, because "there never was any connection."

"If we were 100 percent behind, 'Let's have a thousand billboards, all electronic, downtown,' I would see where you guys might be able to make a pretty good connection here. But, given the sense that our boardmembers come from all over the community, and couldn't reach a consensus, it speaks for itself, in my opinion."

Read the Indy's coverage of electronic billboards here, and view our map of billboards in Durham here.

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