By Mike Dunphy
While travel publications may invite visitors to “get lost in Vermont,” Montpelier does not actually want that to happen in a literal sense. In fact, it’s ensuring just the opposite with the installation this year of new “wayfinding” signage, a project years in the making. Not only does the signage hope to provide visitors to the city with clear navigational information, but also more effective branding.
That the project can finally be manifested later this year is thanks to a $100,000 grant awarded to the city in May by the Vermont Downtown Development Board, which will complete the $200,000-plus total cost when combined with a $9,000 grant awarded last year by Main Street Grants program, additional money from the Capital Improvement Program fund, and savings from Montpelier Alive’s own coffers.
“It’s a big project, and we’re really excited that the state saw the impact it will have and chose to support it with the maximum grant amount available,” says Dan Groberg, executive director of Montpelier Alive. “It’s a very comprehensive package that includes vehicular signs, pedestrian signs, informational kiosks, and a sign at the intersection of Memorial Drive and Main Street.”
All told, the project will bring 48 signs to the downtown area, stretching between Bailey Avenue on the west end, Spring Street on the north, and Berlin Street on the east. This breaks down to one “Gateway” sign at the corner of Memorial Drive—essentially a 21-foot pylon—32 vehicle directional signs, seven pedestrian signs, five parking signs, and three information “kiosks.”
Most of the signage is directed to motorists, with the aim of directing them to parking and alleviating the long-term problem and reputation the city has for it. At the very least, it should reduce the endless circling by people in pursuit of a space.
Once visitors are out of the car, there will be pedestrian-focused signs, clustered primarily on State and Main streets, to specific sights in the city, including Hubbard Park, the State House, the Vermont Historical Society Museum, Kellogg-Hubbard Library, the visitors center, Stone Cutters Way, and more.
The pedestrian- and vehicular-directed signs, however, cannot mention any private, for-profit business, only “transportation centers, geographic districts, historic monuments, and significant or unique educational, recreational, or cultural landmarks, including farmers’ markets that are members of the Vermont Farmers’ Market Association selling Vermont agricultural products,” according to 10 V.S.A. § 494. So there won’t be, for example, any signs pointing to Caledonia Spirits’ new facility off Barre Street, but only the “Barre St District.”
Individual businesses, however, can be plugged in the three 6-foot 10-inch information “kiosks” (signs, really)—one in front of the State House, one at City Center, and one at City Hall. While the final design is still under development, current renderings of the kiosks show a full map of the city with shopping, museums, restaurants, and parks tagged and categorized below. “The information kiosks are a rendering at this point,” Groberg emphasizes. “We are likely to include a map and a brochure holder for our tourism brochure (which includes business listings), as that will be easier and more affordable to update.”
The wayfinding project also aims to enhance Montpelier’s brand, according to Groberg. “Part of it is that it will make it easier for people to find available parking and to navigate to different attractions and districts,” he explains, “but another part of it is making sure we have a really attractive downtown, and this signage is part of that, creating a place unique to Montpelier, which is aesthetically attractive. It’s about place-making and demonstrating the dynamism and creativity of Montpelier.”
Playing a major role in this branding is John Seeley of SurfaceMatter Design, based in Providence, Rhode Island. It was his firm that was hired to design the signs, after what Groberg calls a “comprehensive” selection process, albeit, he notes, before he came into office. Nor is this the first project of its kind for SurfaceMatter, which is also creating a similar wayfinding project in Worcester, Massachusetts. The Bridge arranged an interview with Seeley, but he never followed through.
The project has been a long time coming, as the city and Montpelier Alive sought both funds and approvals on the state and local level. “The project has changed to accommodate some of the requirements as we’ve learned about them,” notes Groberg, be it the size of the lettering, how many directionals can be on a sign, line of sight, and so on.
“Creating an attractive signage package while still meeting the required surface area and letter height requirements was challenging,” notes Corey Line, project management director of the Montpelier Department of Public Works, who assisted in the project, “but I think the consultant did a great job of overcoming it. Also Montpelier has a lot to see and do, and there are limitations on the number of destinations that you can place on a sign, but I think the hierarchy of the different types of signs being used will be effective in directing people to their destinations.”
Downtown shop owners, such as Yvonne Baab of Global Gifts, are looking forward to the project and hope it will increase business. “I think it is a great idea. The signs will make finding the way easier for visitors, and it makes people feel welcomed in my experience. It’s like saying, ‘We’re glad you’re here. Let us show you around our town.’ If we get the new hotel and parking garage, and therefore have an increase in visitors, wayfinding signs will be especially helpful.”
The project is expected to be completed by the end of the year and possibly by mid-fall.