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.

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.

Family-owned business

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.

Bus ridership

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."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper