Sitting pretty: Benches are a boon to Minneapolis company

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2014 - 11:14 PM

One company has controlled Twin Cities bus bench market for over 50 years. A new Minneapolis City Council member wants to rethink that arrangement.

They are a ubiquitous sight around the Twin Cities: Concrete bus benches topped with wooden boards sporting advertisements for real estate agents, carwashes and bail bondsmen.

The often overlooked seats are a moneymaker for U.S. Bench, which has had a nearly unbreakable lock on the metropolitan area’s bench and advertising business for more than 50 years. The company or its affiliate holds every allowed bench license in Minneapolis and St. Paul, blocking out potential competitors.

A new Minneapolis City Council member wants to rethink that arrangement and hopefully generate additional revenue for the city.

“We are leaving money on the table,” said Council Member Andrew Johnson, who intends to pursue a change to the city’s bench ordinance. “We have a huge opportunity here to have a more market-based solution … while at the same time enabling a more creative approach to our streetscape than a couple of wood boards and concrete blocks.”

Use of the public sidewalk for advertising is powerful leverage for a city to attract private money and investment. In an effort to boost revenue and get higher quality benches, Minneapolis launched a four-year competitive process in 2005 to replace the licenses with a long-term contract and expanded them to include everything from benches to bus shelters and trash bins. The City Council even selected a winning proposal, but the company withdrew in 2008 during the economic collapse.

Right now, Minneapolis takes in $34,000 a year from its bench licensing program.

David Gray, president of Florida-based Creative Outdoor Advertising, estimated that the city could garner an additional $100,000 a year. Gray’s company was part of the winning bid in 2008, partnering with Clear Channel Outdoor, until it pulled out later that year.

“If the city put it out to bid, they would get better product and they’d get a lot more money than they presently get,” Gray said. “So essentially right now the taxpayer is funding U.S. Bench.”

Minneapolis city officials did not analyze how much more money the 2008 proposals would have generated from benches, said Casper Hill, a city spokesman.

A staple in the industry

As it stands, the licenses belong to U.S. Bench until the company decides not to renew them. Hill said the city has no basis for revoking U.S. Bench’s licenses, calling the company “a very good operator.” The City Council, however, does have the authority to amend or repeal bench license ordinances, Hill said.

The U.S. Bench concrete and wood benches are among the most enduring components of the Twin Cities’ streetscape. They look about the same as they did in 1961, when Minneapolis leaders first capped the number of benches on the streets. All were owned by U.S. Bench at the time.

The company now owns 2,500 benches in 68 communities across the metro area.

Other cities have ditched the annual licensing system for long-term street furniture contracts, which give companies financial stability needed to invest in more attractive structures. The designs presented to the public in 2008 were all metallic, one featuring a curved back that allowed people to sit on either side.

U.S. Bench officials say the current system gives city leaders maximum flexibility.

“It allows the city to annually review and monitor the individual locations as well as other aspects of bench placement and maintenance,” company President Scott Danielson said in a statement.

U.S. Bench pays annual fees to Minneapolis and St. Paul of $49 and $22, respectively, for more than 1,100 licenses. In St. Paul, they skirt a rule aimed at preventing one company from having a monopoly by owning 10 benches through an affiliated company, National Courtesy Bench. U.S. Bench bought that company in 2001.

The city is looking into whether that violates the ordinance after a Star Tribune inquiry, said St. Paul’s business licensing chief Dan Niziolek.

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