JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — This Summer’s Prize For Tackiness On The Highway

If you head for the Bad Lands this summer, be prepared for some new scenery. All along I-94 from Dickinson to Medora, N.D., you’re going to see the latest abomination brought to us by the oil industry: “repurposed” semi-trailers painted up with advertising messages parked along the ditches beside the freeway. It’s what happens when greedy, tasteless money-grubbers stretch the law to its very limit, and maybe even beyond its limit, although there’s no one in state government, apparently, willing to challenge these companies who are turning us into another Arkansas/West Virginia.

You’ll recall the 1960s, when Lady Bird Johnson persuaded Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act, putting strict regulations on what can and cannot be parked or built alongside our highways. I’m pretty sure neither Lady Bird or the members of Congress who voted for this law envisioned these “portable billboards” junking up our highways, especially highways leading to national parks and natural wonders like our Bad Lands.

But the North Dakota Department of Transportation, whose job it is to regulate these kinds of things, says they’re just fine, under a little-used section of our own state laws, which says if someone controls the land alongside the highway, they can put up pretty much any kind of advertising sign, “affixed to the ground or any tree, wall, bush, rock, fence, building, structure, or thing . . .”  Yeah, you can hang a sign on a bush. Or a “thing” — a semi-trailer. You can look it up, Section 24-17-02 of the North Dakota Century Code. Now that is a bad law. Yeah, they might be legal, but it seems to me that good taste would come into play somewhere along the line here. Nope, good taste has no place in the Bakken Oil Boom. This is the Wild, Wild, West. Anything goes.

In a past life, I was the State Tourism director, and I was pretty friendly with the billboard industry because it was their signs that directed tourists to where they could eat, sleep, play and spend money in North Dakota. I still am because now I’m one of those tourists, and I rely on billboards a lot. Thing is, the billboard industry does things right, follows the law and makes sure the advertising is tastefully done. These renegades who are painting up old trailers, or hanging banners from them, give the whole outdoor advertising industry a bad name.

I’ve talked to somebody from Newman Signs, which owns most of the billboards in North Dakota, and they are not happy about this. They follow the law, putting their signs, generally pretty nice looking, in commercial or industrial zones, like the federal law dictates.

This is one of he ugliest of the signs hanging alongside the interstate near Medora. It’s owned by Dalrymple re-election campaign chairman and Republican mega-donor Jim Arthaud.
This is one of he ugliest of the signs hanging alongside the interstate near Medora. It’s owned by Dalrymple re-election campaign chairman and Republican mega-donor Jim Arthaud.

So who’s doing this? Well, most of them are companies looking for truck drivers, hanging help wanted signs on trailers or painting them up. Others are selling real estate.

But there’s one guy who just seems to like to see his name in big letters, and he is responsible for about a third of these things. His name is Jim Roers, and he has a company called Roers Development, and he’s putting one of his developments on the west edge of Dickinson. His trailers just have his name and his phone number on them, along with the words “Building Success.” Well, good for him.

A real classy Roers trailer-sign. Legal or not? Doesn’t matter if you’re friends of the governor.
A real classy Roers trailer-sign. Legal or not? Doesn’t matter if you’re friends of the governor.

He’s not worried about whether his trailers are legal or not, because he has friends in high places. Like the governor’s office. Apparently he and Jack Dalrymple are real buddies. They even campaigned together in 2012, when Jack was running for governor and Jim was running for the state Senate. Jack won. Jim didn’t, becoming what I believe is the first Republican to lose a Legislative race in south Fargo’s heavily Republican District 46. Got beat by now-state Senator George B. Sinner.

Campaign buddies Jim Roers and Jack Dalrymple.
Campaign buddies Jim Roers and Jack Dalrymple.

Did I mention that Jim and Jack campaigned together? Oh, yeah, here’s how I found out. I found this video clip on the Internet of the two of them campaigning together. You can watch it— it’s only 45 seconds — by clicking here. Go ahead, do it. When you get back here, let me know if you saw them leaving a house, and Jack walking right across the lawn instead of using the sidewalk.

Back in another past life, when I was conducting Campaigning 101 classes for candidates, I told them the first rule is “Keep Off The Grass!” I’m guessing Jack hasn’t done much door-to-door, so he didn’t know that rule, or else he’s arrogant enough to believe it doesn’t apply to him.

Oh, but then I saw the sign behind them that says Vote for Jim. So maybe they were at Jim’s house, staging this for a commercial. And walking on the grass was OK. But go back and look closer, in the driveway  behind them — of all things, the sign is sitting on a trailer! Well, that ties right in with his modus operandi, as Joe Friday would say.

Here’s kind of what I think. I think they were filming a TV commercial at Jim’s house (or maybe the next-door neighbors) and the two people standing in front of the house are the film crew. Someone came by and saw what was going on, and pulled out their smart phone and filmed the filmmakers making the film. But what happened next puzzles me.

Did you notice what was interesting about that clip? It was for sale! Yeah, you can buy a low-resolution version of the clip — 30 megabytes — for just $19. Sounds like a bargain, if you have any use for a few seconds of Jack Dalrymple walking across somebody’s lawn. But if you want the good stuff — high resolution 76 megabytes — that’ll run you $79.

It’s an interesting way to make money, isn’t it? Film the governor out campaigning, and then sell it. Never miss an opportunity to make a quick buck, taking advantage of a chance encounter with a governor, albeit across the street.

Not sure who would buy it, but … I looked around a little more and found out you can buy a version of it in French. And in German. And in Italian. In Portuguese. And even in Vietnamese! COOL! And it’s the same price on all the foreign versions — 240p for the low resolution, 1080p for the high resolution. I don’t know what the “p” stands for — some kind of currency I suppose.

I can’t imagine that Jack and Jim would be selling it themselves and collecting royalties, but you never know. Rich guys never seem to have enough. … As an instructional video, I’d suggest they could title it “What Not To Do When You Leave Someone’s House During Your Campaign.” Sorry, I don’t have the Portuguese translation for that.

But back to matters at hand — ugly semi-trailers parked alongside I-94 on the road to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Legal or not, they are just plain tasteless, and as someone who is concerned about our state’s image, I think they ought to go away.

Gonna be tough, though. Jim Roers, in addition to being a candidate for the Legislature, is a big Republican donor. Another one of the signs is for a company called MBI. That’s Jim Arthaud’s company, and he was Jack’s campaign chairman last time (click here) and gives $10,000 a year to the Republican Party and its candidates. I think both of those guys have enough money to put up a real billboard, a legal one, and a little more tasteful. I didn’t look to see if the owners of the rest of them are donors to Dalrymple’s campaign or the Republican Party, but anyone want to hazard a guess?

Aside: In announcing the America the Beautiful initiative in January 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) said :”I want to make sure that the America we see from these major highways is a beautiful America.” America agreed with him. He wouldn’t like to see the road from Dickinson to Medora these days. The Federal Highway Administration, on a page on its website, has an interesting and funny story from the Washington Post titled “How the Highway Beautification Act Became a Law.” You can read it by clicking here.  

A few more nice trailer signs. Thanks to my friend Jerry DeMartin for sharing these photos with me, and for motivating me to get off my butt and write about this. I’ve got another rant about some bad highway signs, but I’ll save it for another day. I feel pretty good after getting this one off my chest.

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