In the wake of reduced funding and tourism, Santa Monica City Council is looking to use public-private partnerships to bring in millions of dollars in additional revenue.

With revenues expected to be $11.6 million lower than initial budget projections, Council decided to begin the implementation of a digital wayfinding program that could generate an estimated $2 million from advertising revenue a year.

In the fall of 2019, Council directed staff to identify new ways of reaching financial sustainability. But that was long before COVID -19 took hold on tourism and Santa Monica’s local economy.

“So, now the need is even greater,” Chief Communications Officer Debbie Lee said during a recent Council meeting where she detailed how alternative revenue streams from public-private partnerships can help accelerate and enhance city services and strengthen Santa Monica’s financial resilience in the wake of massive economic and behavioral disruption — all without increasing taxes or fees.

Cities like Denver, London and Berkeley already utilize digital wayfinding points and kiosks similar to the ones that could soon find their way into the Third Street Promenade and downtown areas, according to DTSM Inc., Kathleen Rawson.

“This is something that we have been pushing for forever and I feel the city has it mapped out pretty well already, frankly, because we have these directories in Downtown,” Rawson said in an interview after the Council meeting. “These aren’t your typical digital billboards, and there’s no expense to the city so it’s nothing but a plus in my mind.”

Lee said the kiosks are beneficial for a multitude of reasons since they’ll provide the ability to rotate advertisements for multiple brands and allow advertisers and local businesses a chance to more effectively engage customers in the area. They can also include pedestrian wayfinding capabilities that will detail directions to nearby public transit stops, share any pertinent emergency public health notifications, and provide local businesses with great marketing opportunities, because they’re pedestrian sized directories.

“So, you’d go up to it and push a logo, and you’d be able to see if that restaurant or bakery has a special going on. It’ll show you, the consumer, that you can get dessert or an appetizer at a discount,” Rawson explained. “And that allows local businesses to sell out the five extra cakes they made near the end of the day all while bringing in new customers with deals like free dessert; It’s just very immediate.”

Councilmember Kevin Mckeown asked his fellow councilmembers to be cautious about turning the Promenade into Times Square.

“I’ve been on this Council 22 years, and over that time I have consistently argued against the corporatization of our public spaces,” McKeown said before Council’s approval. “I have deep concerns about putting advertising everywhere we look and what that does to our identity… I like the idea of Wayfinding kiosks, but they can’t just become digital billboards — they have to have a preponderance of useful information to justify allowing some intermittent advertising to be there as well.”

Staff assured McKeown and the rest of City Council that the project would be completed in a two-phase approach so the City could focus on the best and most strategic placement of kiosks in high traffic major commercial corridors.

The first phase is expected to include approximately 25 boards in areas near Santa Monica Boulevard and the downtown area. The second phase is likely to include an additional 25 boards in similar locations but will expand to the commercial segments of Montana Avenue and Main Street.

“Once a vendor is selected through an RFP process, staff would conduct a very thorough review of each kiosk location, factoring in any other stationary structures such as streetlights and EV charging stations and bring back a detailed comprehensive list to Council for approval,” Lee said. A decision on whether to proceed with the second phase would occur approximately 12 months after the first-phase deployment to allow the network to mature and to address any community concerns or unanticipated impacts.