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Boise visitors need direction

Drive into Boise on the connector, and you’re not going to see directional signs pointing you toward important sites such as the Idaho Statehouse or Boise State University.

You’ll see the usual highway exit signs and an ever-changing message from the Ada County Sheriff’s Department that occasionally offers hints for staying out of jail. The only other “wayfinding” sign is the small rectangle signaling the turnoff for the Bogus Basin ski area.

It’s low-key, it’s brown, and if you follow it, you’ll find yourself at the intersection of Americana Boulevard and 16th Street with no clue how to proceed next. Any would-be skier who doesn’t already know to turn left off River at 15th Street is out of luck. River Street eventually leads to the Boise Art Museum.

Boise just hasn’t kept up with more frequently visited cities on its signage. While the city has plenty of billboards, a host of entertaining reader boards, and some eye-catching and mysterious building murals, some of its best attractions are shrouded in mystery, accessible only to those already in the know.

It’s time to do something about that.

The Downtown Boise Association and the Capital City Development Corp. are slowly working toward a solution – very slowly. The idea for wayfinding signage, as it’s known, has been coming up sporadically since 2004. It was identified in a downtown mobility study that year, and then in a few CCDC studies. Last year, a well-known tourism consultant raised the issue on a visit to Boise.

Now CCDC and the DBA are planning a request for proposals for a consultant who could put a plan together for making and installing the signs. They haven’t established which agency would pay for the signage; the cost would probably be shared among many, according to the CCDC. Nobody knows how much it would cost.

Putting up signs is far from simple. It’s such a complex topic that cities, villages, even community colleges around the country have had to develop working groups and even written philosophies to cover the multitude of questions and competing interests that arise.

One big one: Who decides who gets to have a sign? Under some sign programs, companies like Micron get one. After all, they must have plenty of visitors to their headquarters on the east side of town. Same with Hewlett-Packard and Simplot.

Other cities reserve wayfinding signs for cultural sites, in our case things like the Boise Depot, the Old Penitentiary and the Idaho Botanical Garden. When I was driving around in Vermont over Memorial Day weekend, I saw clusters of directional signs for local car washes, defunct stone quarries, a diner, the Ben & Jerry’s headquarters, apple cider places and a T-shirt stand.

Karen Sander, the executive director of the downtown association, said it’s going to be pretty easy to decide that outfits such as the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and the botanical garden should be beneficiaries of a new sign program. CCDC and the downtown association haven’t even talked about signage to private businesses, she said.

The fact that many people will be rolling into town looking at a dashboard-mounted GPS or a smartphone doesn’t change the conversation. That’s because many people don’t use those devices.

As far as Sander is concerned, one of the most important questions for the sign-reliant is parking. She wants signs to steer people off the freeway, into downtown, and then straight into a parking garage. Only then will they get out on foot and start looking around for the downtown attractions they learned about through the signs.

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.


  1. Chris Blanchard

    Nice work, Bill. Of course it goes beyond the fact that municipal governments here in Idaho have less authority than cities in any other state west of the Mississippi; we’ve got other systemic issues as well.

    1) Boise doesn’t control its streets – that would be ACHD’s department. I would guess that the interest in wayfinding within that agency is non-existent. This is an issue that is of course unique to cities in Ada County. No where else in the country could a city not install a wayfinding sign.

    2) Following the Pocatello decision, there isn’t a functioning convention and visitor’s bureau anymore, so there’s no one to really advocate for a wayfinding program – and such a program is probably more in BCVB’s purview than DBA and CCDC.

    3) There is ZERO interest in tourism at the state level. Tourism is about the size of the Ag economy in Idaho, but you don’t hear anyone from the executive or legislative branches worrying over loss of flights into BOI. Tourism isn’t even on the radar screen.

  2. I agree that Boise could use more way-finding signs, but let’s not limit it to the signs that would be used just for those driving. For those who choose to explore our fair city by foot or bicycle there is also a dearth of good way-finding resources. Even if you’re walking the Greenbelt the only signs you see are those that tell you where you are on the Greenbelt itself. There’s nothing to tell you that there’s a museum 300 yards to the north, for example.
    And as our city becomes more of a bicycling town, it would be nice to have the sort of way-finding signs you find in Portland where destinations are labeled with distances. It seems there needs to be a coordinated effort among a number of agencies to make this sort of thing happen.

  3. I’m going out on a limb and scratch the surface deeper. Idaho cities, long treated as red-haired stepchildren by the [imperial] Idaho Legislature, simply have no cultural and historic ethos of being able to solve their own problems, at least down to this level. It’s 100% due to the fact Idaho is only state West of the Mississippi where that same bozo Legislature refuses to grant the cities constitutional home-rule powers (i.e. “local control”). The Legislature loves the fact, like little children, the cities and towns of the state must forever supplicate themselves, asking permission via the constant “Mother, may I?” on this or that. A process which has historically engendered municipal servitude and complacency.

    The “cosmic monkeywrench” into this cozy little legislative group-grope is the arrival on the scene of the Internet itself. While really less than 20 years old, it has already shown us that it rewards, and rewards mightily, states that reorganize themselves according to its ‘new economy’ principles. Those being speed, transparency, and rapid accountability. It also punishes mightily those places (i.e. Idaho) that do not do those things. Idaho has gone through Phase 1 of the ‘punishment stage’ (2005-present), next up–Phase 2. This will be where it becomes quite frightening, especially if you’re a young professional on the “up and up” with your career, family, etc….and you awaken in a cold sweat at night realizing what’s happening in the location you got sold into believing (like everyone who’s already left) ….that is a progressive, modern state economy.

    Maybe one day the young professional in Idaho will wake up, and take back their state from the worst bunch of jaded, cynical atavistic boobs in any state outside places like Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, etc. Maybe….maybe not (right now it ain’t looking too certain).

  4. You’re right. Never occurred to me. No signs. Do we really get that many tourists? Maybe we do. Shouldn’t be that tough to figure out a couple of signs for a start. No reason to make it so complicated. Pick a target like the state house and work back from there to three main access points and put up signs where needed. A high school class could figure each one out in a week. Let’s get on with it.

  5. Great article. Well written and to the point, as usual. And you raise a very good and often overlooked point, which had never occurred to me Boise just doesn’t help it’s tourists find their way about. That’s clearly a mistake. While I can hear myself railing about the signage cities like San Francisco and Seattle DO have–the signs often seem to arrive just too late or offer inconclusive directions about which “right” ahead to take–at least they HAVE the signs and they are helpful. It is frustrating, however, that our city government can’t quickly and efficiently get some basic signs up directing visitors to core attractions like the Capitol, the Depot, BAM, the museums, our major parks and Boise River access. A small mayoral task force ought to be able to get that done in six months (or less). Let’s challenge our dear mayor and our city council to do just that. I’ll write the letters tomorrow.