A company managing billboards in the lakes area - including one along Highway 371 in Pequot Lakes - says some of their billboards have come under fire, metaphorically and literally, over presidential ads on the boards.

After discussions online over one of the removed ads, both sides wanted to share their thoughts.

The business side

Presidential billboard advertisements are no longer being accepted by Rheaume's House of Lettering (RHL inc.), owner of the electronic billboard south of Pequot Lakes, after negative response by members of both political parties made it clear it's just not worth it this year.

Co-owner Wendy Rheaume said the first issue arose about a week after several of their billboards, including the board south of Pequot Lakes, began running a political advertisement for President Donald Trump. Another of the company's many electronic billboards received a rather violent reaction.

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"Earlier this campaign season there was an ad for President Trump on some of the boards," Rheaume said. "At some point a couple weeks or so ago we noticed some issues with that particular billboard in our area. We went to check on it and discovered nine bullet holes in the billboard. Someone was offended by that particular ad and shot the billboard. A business decision was made because these are expensive pieces of equipment that all Trump ads were pulled at that time. We just didn't want to take the risk of having any other damage done to any of the other billboards."

At first, the company decided simply to stop running those advertisements to protect their property as a private company. The issue was further complicated when a group used crowd funding to raise money to buy an advertisement for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

"We were approached by a group that had put some money together and wanted to run a Biden/Harris ad," Rheaume said. "We had space on the board they requested and said, 'Sure, we can put that ad up there.' It played for about a week."

The space was the north face of the billboard outside of Pequot Lakes, visible to southbound traffic, and the same face that had previously hosted the Trump advertisement. The company received comments from unnamed, longtime, local advertisers that put the company, again, at risk of significant financial losses.

"A couple long-term clients that we've done a lot of business with called us and threatened to cancel their long-term contract," Rheaume said. "For us, a small, family-owned business, those long-term client relationships are extremely important to us. Whether they are a local coffee shop or whatever, those relationships are important. So a business decision was made at that point to take the Biden ad down and refund the money to the group that had paid for it."

As operators of a private business, the owners decided that this year's presidential race posed a risk to income and property, and decided to not accept any presidential advertisements whatsoever during this election season.

This decision is an uncommon one for the company. Rheame said people are acting excessively aggressive over the issue.

"It's just an unusual situation," she said. "After the Trump ad was shot at we made the decision to take that ad down. Then a couple weeks later long-term relationships with clients were on the line and we weren't willing to wreck those relationships."

Advertisements for other political offices are still welcome. In fact, advertisements for other candidates are live on some of the company's billboards. These advertisements have not resulted in the same extreme responses.

"We have a couple other political ads still running locally in our market," Rheaume said. "But no presidential ads."

Rheaume said she was disappointed in some of the conversation going around regarding the company's decision. She wanted to be sure that people consider their perspective as business owners rather than making assumptions. She was initially frustrated by some social media response to the situation, but those posts have since been removed.

"When an ad gets pulled, suddenly there are things on social media that are negative towards our company," Rheaume said. "Things quickly get forwarded and shared and commented on social media. People don't even understand the other side of the story."

Rheaume said the company has not yet decided if the ban on presidential ads will continue in four years with the next presidential election.

The customer side

Pine River's Alita Reque-Peterson, the organizer for the Biden/Harris ad, said the goal of the ad was to help Biden/Harris supporters feel represented in a section of the state where they may feel discouraged or even silenced as voters.

"I live pretty rural and not off any visible road," Reque-Peterson said. "The farther you get into northern Minnesota, you see a lot more Trump signs. In a way, if you're not Republican you can feel really outnumbered. I got an idea. I saw the Trump ad on this billboard over the summer. I thought, well, why not have Biden on there?"

When she first had the idea to rent space on a billboard, Reque-Peterson said she had to reach out to friends to make it happen.

"I put out some feelers to my friends," she said, "and some Facebook friends as well. I said, 'Hey, would anyone be interested in chipping in, because I can't do it myself.' And they immediately said, 'Yes.'"

In addition to asking friends if they would like to contribute, she also turned to a crowd funding website.

"In order to make the money part move, I set up a GoFundMe," Reque-Peterson said. "Within (14 hours) I was already a bit over and I needed to turn off the donations."

Reque-Peterson said RHL was very accommodating and showed no hesitation to accepting the ad. When she saw the ad on the billboard she was excited. She said different groups throughout the state also saw the ad.

"It gave me hope," Reque-Peterson said. "It was so exciting and I was really happy. I let the group know it went through and posted a picture on my Facebook page."

Later, some longtime business customers threatened to sever their business ties with RHL if the ad continued, forcing the company to choose between a one-time customer and a lasting business relationship. Reque-Peterson said while she is very disappointed the ad was removed, she understands the company needs to make decisions from a long-term business perspective.

"What the company is doing makes sense fiscally," Reque-Peterson said. "It doesn't make sense to take our $500 over thousands from a different client. That's their private business. They have a right to do that. So long as they refunded us they haven't done anything wrong."

Reque-Peterson said she decided not to attempt to seek other advertising options for either Biden/Harris or any local candidates out of frustration with the earlier process. Not only was she discouraged and disappointed in the outcome, it turns out there is a lot of work required to get approval for advertising for candidates.

"I contacted the local DFL just to make sure we weren't using something that would be copyright infringement," Reque-Peterson said. "I found out I did have to do paperwork for using this amount of money toward the ad and to have the right wording and everything else on there."

Because of the crowd funding, Reque-Peterson didn't initially know how to issue a refund to those who had contributed. The company initially offered to refund part of the ad cost, which would have complicated Reque-Peterson's refund to her collaborators, but then the company agreed, instead, to a full refund.. She consulted with her partners in the project, who suggested she use the funds instead to support other local candidates.

"At this point the group of donors has agreed that I will put the money we got toward Dale Menk and Brent Krist," Reque-Peterson said of the two area DFL House candidates.

Reque-Peterson said she is disappointed how controversial it can be to simply attempt to support a candidate. She compared the use of money and a long-term business relationship to force the removal of the Biden/Harris ad to people damaging (such as by shooting) or stealing others' political signs.

"It is so unfortunate that it has to be this controversial to just put out signs," she said. "I don't think it's right. Whether someone is a Democrat or whatever, it's wrong for people to take signs or burn signs on either side."

Reque-Peterson had initially decided not to speak about the situation in part due to heated discussions and what she says were miscommunications that took place on Facebook. Again, those posts have since been removed.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.