Rolling out a new message

School buses approved as new kind of ‘billboard’

Terry Tuttle and Keith Pankey apply a sign to a local school bus.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

Terry Tuttle and Keith Pankey apply a sign to a local school bus.

When a new state law opened the door for color advertising on school buses, three Blount businessmen formed a company to market the signs.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

When a new state law opened the door for color advertising on school buses, three Blount businessmen formed a company to market the signs.

On Monday morning, March 8, when school buses rolled out for their appointed rounds in Maryville and Blount County, there was something new on the sides of the buses. Maryville businessman Steve Stilts is hoping people take notice.

Stilts, along with his partners Rick Ford and Keith Pankey, recently started East Tennessee Ads, a company that sells and fixes miniature billboard-type advertisements on the exterior sides of school buses. The ads are situated on the back quarter panel of the bus, from the rear wheel well to the end of the bus. On Saturday, March 6, Pankey and Stilts put the adhesive ads on the buses owned by Dwayne Flynn and by John Clabough.

Stilts said the idea was born in July when he read about a new state law allowing color advertising on school buses. “I have a friend in the sign business (Pankey) and a friend in the marketing business (Ford), and it seemed like it would be a great opportunity for a business and also a way to make money for school systems,” he said. “I started researching it, and I found out buses could advertise in black and white in previous years and no one really did it. But the color ads would be easier to market and get the full effect for the customers.”

Stilts said that initially he didn’t know where to start and whether he should approach the bus drivers and school systems without customers or approach customers without a deal with bus drivers/school systems. Stilts, who owns a commercial insulation company, also was concerned that the slow economy might be an obstacle to growing the venture.

Stilts said he began talking to Blount County Schools officials, including school board chair Chris Cantrell, transportation director Stan Burnett and schools director Rob Britt. “They liked the idea and were all for it,” Stilts said.

“We wanted to put it in place and get it rolling. We thought we would go ahead and do this introductory offer with 20 signs in place for five to six customers,” Stilts said. “There are numerous opportunities for businesses, real estate agents, attorneys, restaurants and stores. With the help of bus owner John Clabough, we will be implementing an introductory advertising campaign. The initial businesses helping to get the buses rolling with advertisement will be Puleo’s Grille, KenJo Markets and Bayou Bay.”

Stilts said the idea was for 50 percent of all revenue to go the school systems and/or the bus contractor and 50 percent to the company doing the ads. “There’s a different breakdown (as to where the money goes) in each different system,” he said.

In Blount County, the money goes to the bus contractors. “It gives the owner a chance to possibly use another option to make a little more money,” said Stilts. “We felt like it would give them a little more money to supplement what they need for maintenance costs and operating cost.”

There won’t be any suggestive or inappropriate ads. “It’s regulated by both state and local guidelines,” Stilts said.

Stilts said that between the county and Maryville city school systems there are approximately 100 school buses. This gives the school systems and bus owners an opportunity to generate tens of thousands of dollars per year when the advertising is at full steam, Stilts said.

Rick Ford of Marcon Marketing said when Stilts mentioned the idea to him, he saw it as a way to support schools who are strapped for funds, help bus owners who are struggling with high cost of running the buses and give advertisers great visibility.

“We set it up like that, so I think it is a win-win situation for everybody,” Ford said.

Ford said Stilts has done the groundwork to get the project going, Pankey has created the signage and he will market the opportunity to businesses. “Now that the t’s are crossed and i’s dotted, I think it will take off in positive way,” Ford said.

Dwayne Flynn owns buses used in the Maryville City school system. “I think it helps the schools a whole lot and helps me as well,” he said. John Clabough said it will help owners with expenses. “”It will help bus contractors like myself to pick up the slack caused by high fuel costs.”

Keith Pankey, a partner with East Tennessee Ads and owner of Signco, said the same thing is being done in Arizona.

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