Future of Red Hat Billboards Uncertain

The Bacardi billboards that currently adorn the Red Hat building at 9 Bowdoin St. and face Cambridge Street.

The future of two billboards on the Red Hat building hangs in the balance after both the city’s Inspectional Service Department (ISD) and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) cited the principal owner of a local ad agency for not securing proper permits for the signage.

In a notice issued June 28, ISD served Damien Jacob of Framingham-based Sponsor Spot with a writ for “failure to erect a long form permit for two billboards on the façade of the building.” Jacob faces imprisonment up to one year and/or fines of up to $1,000 for not remedying the violations within 30 days, according to the citation.

While Jacob won a Suffolk Superior Court decision in 2010 allowing him to hang two 25-foot-by-40-foot billboards on leased space at 9 Bowdoin St., ISD spokesperson Lisa Timberlake told the Times that the advertising content itself is now the issue.

The billboards currently advertise Bacardi, and since the Red Hat sells spirits, Timberlake said the applicant now must secure “on-premise advertising” permits from the city and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Office of Outdoor Advertising. (The signs previously promoted Blue Moon beer and, before that, the Boston Public Health Commission).

“It’s the same as if someone wanted to put a Nike billboard on a store that sells sneakers,” said Timberlake in explaining the distinction between the permit requirements for on-premise advertising and other types of outdoor signage.

Meanwhile, MassDOT Press Secretary Sara Lavoie stated: “These Cambridge Street billboards have not been permitted by the Office of Outdoor Advertising. MassDOT considers these billboards to be unlawful. The matter has been referred to the Office of the Attorney General. (The Attorney General represents MassDOT in all litigation matters). We have worked cooperatively to offer the billboard operator the opportunity to apply for a license to engage in outdoor advertising in Massachusetts and to properly permit the billboard. The gentleman has not been responsive to our attempts. We believe we have reached an impasse and have asked the Attorney General’s office for assistance.”

Jacob countered he has an “all-inclusive permit” with the city and added he is “in communications” with the Outside Advertising Board to secure the proper license from the state.

“These signs are allowed by local, state and federal regulations,” Jacob said. “A content-based enforcement policy is really unconstitutional. They’re really grasping at straws.”

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