Too-quick judgments are a sign of the times
Like so many questions, whether to allow signs that aren’t flat against downtown storefronts isn’t a “yes” or “no” proposition.
In Lindsborg, often looked to as an example of economic development, signs are allowed — sort of.
All have to be approved by a committee that enforces very detailed, written standards. They must use a similar color scheme, must be appropriate for the historical period involved, generally must be quite small, and typically don’t hang from buildings themselves but rather are posted on identically designed wrought-iron stanchions at the edge of downtown sidewalks.
Each stanchion typically features more than one business, and none of the rules can be overridden for political expediency or personal favoritism.
Most neighboring communities, including Hillsboro, severely restrict hanging signs by ordinance, code, or mutual agreement. Council Grove, like Lindsborg, has a thorough and robust set of rules and procedures that stretches on for many pages in its city code.
Inexperienced community members sometimes whine about considering past experience in making future decisions. But if we don’t learn from history’s errors, we are doomed to repeat them.
Look at the accompanying photo of a single block of Main St. in Marion in 1969. Note the forest of signs obscuring the architecture of the buildings. Especially note how each sign is radically different and typically advertises not the business involved by some line of merchandise it sells.
Practicality is that most businesses can’t afford custom signs. Instead, they will obtain signs that advertise the logo of a supplier, perhaps including just a small line listing the name of the business. Or they will choose generic signs like a big word “EAT” inside an arrow or homemade signs that look amateurish.
If signs are allowed willy-nilly, with no standards attached, most won’t be like the perfectly attractive and seemingly appropriate one for Dawn’s Day Spa, which started this controversy.
They’re more likely to be a cacophony of corporate logos and generic or amateurish messages in a dizzying array of sizes and colors that would make downtown Marion look more like a chain of redneck pawn shops, peep shows, and beer halls than a quaint and pleasant place to shop.
Opening the door to anything and everything in the way of hanging signs would be a disaster. Still, there could be an alternative to an all-out ban.
Adopting a standard that allows for consistent signage like the one for Dawn’s —the same size, shape, color scheme, typefaces, style of decoration, and position — would create a consistent image.
Imagine a series of signs just like Dawn’s, the only difference being different words naming each business. That could be classy, like the white Christmas lights that uniformly line every downtown building. The sign for Dawn’s could be the trendsetter, with those following the trend required to match its approach.
It doesn’t take someone who spent 26 years as a tenured professor teaching design at one of the nation’s largest and best research universities to say that allowing even one business to have flashing, multicolored Christmas lights that chase along a building in marquee style would destroy downtown Marion’s Christmas image. Allowing multiple different sign styles would do just the same to our signage.
A bit of creative latitude might be allowed, but a clear standard of consistency would have to be established and specifically approved in advance by a design committee, with final authority that could not be overridden, before any sign could be posted.
Anyone who posted without permission should be forced to remove the sign immediately at his or her own expense.
More important, any building owner allowing a sign to be posted would be required to post with the city a cash bond sufficient to pay for the sign to be removed immediately upon the business ceasing operations.
The harsh reality is that businesses come and go. How many businesses have we seen in recent years in the storefront where Dawn’s now operates? We hope Dawn’s will buck the trend and be around for a long time, but we must recognize that something like half of new businesses fail within a few months.
Having a street full of signs for active businesses could create a vibrant experience, but having a street full of signs for businesses that no longer exist would do far more damage than good.
Social media makes it easy for people to jump on “yes” or “no” bandwagons without fully thinking issues through. If Marion hopes to achieve the future it is capable of, it needs to spend more time thinking about long-term nuances of decisions — not just regarding downtown signs but regarding other issues, as well.
— ERIC MEYER