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.