National Courtesy Bench founder Bill Keegan said he created the company to compete with U.S. Bench by getting licenses in several suburban cities.
Keegan said he was never able to reach the critical mass necessary to make the operation successful.
Exactly how much U.S. Bench makes from the arrangement is not clear. Johnson said a company representative told him the ad rate was $89 a month.
Danielson said ad rates vary by length of contract and number of benches, but their average rate is less than $89 a piece. He said upward of 25 percent of benches produce no revenue.
Based in south Minneapolis, U.S. Bench is a family-owned company with 10 employees. It installed its first bench at the corner of Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue in 1957, gradually expanding to include more areas of the Twin Cities. Danielson said it has never competitively bid to provide the service, adding that most municipalities opt for a licensing or permitting process.
“We have been told by cities that this is the preferred method of regulating courtesy benches because it gives the community the opportunity to regulate the benches on a site by site basis,” Danielson said.
Founder and longtime owner Rollie Danielson is now semiretired, his son said. Campaign finance records show Rollie Danielson contributed to seven of the 13 council member’s campaigns in 2009 and later sprinkled money to several mayoral and council campaigns in 2013. It adds up to just over $3,700.
“He has made contributions to political candidates for more than sixty years because he believes that participating in the election process is an important part of our democratic system,” Scott Danielson wrote.
Danielson said his father did not expect anything in return for those contributions.
Unlike bus shelters owned by Metro Transit, which are installed based on boardings at each stop, there are no public guidelines as to where the benches should be installed.
A Star Tribune analysis of bus bench locations and bus boarding data shows far fewer benches along some north Minneapolis corridors where ridership is high, like Penn, Fremont and West Broadway avenues. Roland Clarke held onto a stop pole as he waited for a bus on a recent afternoon at Penn Avenue and Golden Valley Road.
About 134 boardings occur there every day, but there is no bench. “Right now I’m sick,” said Clarke, who has diabetes and was on his way to a nearby clinic. “I need to sit, but I can’t sit nowhere. If we could get a bench, it would be helpful.”
Danielson said benches are often installed at the request of a city or Metro Transit, but their locations are not always tied to ridership because cities and police ask for them to be removed following vandalism or loitering.
He would not clarify whether that was the reason for the North Side discrepancy.
Phillip Koski, an architect who helped review proposals for Minneapolis, said the benches are an important amenity for residents and should be more inviting and high quality.
“They scream out, ‘This is a place for poor people, we don’t care’,” Koski said of the current benches. “And if you go to other cities [like Paris], they celebrate their transit, their civic infrastructure.”