Consultant: Signs only part of what area needs

Most communities have overhauled their sign systems in phases.

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WALLA WALLA - A Pennsylvania consultant hired to analyze Walla Walla's sign system is recommending a "wayfinding" overhaul that would go far beyond roadside postings.

In a presentation Thursday, John Bosio said the opportunities to engage and direct visitors can start before people ever arrive. Starting with cell phone applications and online maps there is an array of steps the community can take to boost navigation through the Valley. From there efforts can expand to gateway greetings at entryways into the area's communities and more thorough and uniform directional signage reflecting a cohesive Walla Walla brand to guide people.

What those signs might look like would be part of the next phase of the regional sign project, Bosio told about 20 attendees during a morning meeting at Hampton Inn & Suites. He said the endeavor could be an opportunity to utilize the work of local artists and the Walla Walla Foundry for a distinctly local touch on the signs.

Bosio and his firm Merje were retained for the study by Tourism Walla Walla. The $30,000 analysis was funded through a multi-agency partnership, including Tourism Walla Walla, the cities of Walla Walla, College Place and Milton-Freewater, the ports of Walla Walla and Columbia, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Walla Walla Foundation.

The next step would be honing in on numerous details, including which signs to tackle first and how to fund them. With few decisions yet made in moving forward, the cost of implementation has not yet been estimated. Bosio likened the first phase in master planning to being on a mountaintop looking down. The detail work, in comparison, would be deep underground. "We're at 30,000 feet right now," he quipped.

As concepts for the signs are explored, Tourism Walla Walla Executive Director Michael Davidson said his office will begin tackling possible funding sources in the form of grants.

Bosio said most communities he has worked with have overhauled their sign systems in phases with much of the funding coming from grants, government programs and public/private partnerships.

One word of warning he offered: "Do not put a sign in the ground without a funding and maintenance plan," Bosio said.

He said a plan for implementation can begin with the signs stakeholders identify as being most important. That typically starts with the basics, he said.

"I would much rather see getting people into parking downtown first then a gateway sign," he said.

Bosio said ideally the communities spanning from Dayton to Milton-Freewater would all adopt a standard "P" to represent parking for inclusion in public lots all over the Valley. The continuity would serve as a communicator to local residents and visitors.

Other recommendations: directional pedestrian kiosks with text message/tag maps for mobile downloads; interpretive markers and agriculture markers identifying crops to passing motorists/cyclists.

With so many visitors coming to the area for wine, helping them find their way to tasting rooms was also a major focus of Bosio's work. He said many wineries have already started to use one mechanism he highly recommends: zoning.

"It's the most common form of wayfinding there is," he said.

Many wineries are already identifying themselves as being in a certain area of the Valley - from downtown to south side wineries. What's missing, however, is a graphic connection showing visitors where the zones change. Bosio said that could be easily remedied by creating a logo or brand that could be used at the entry to each winery zone. Different colors of the signs and a letter symbolizing which region is marked could help show visitors the zone. For instance, the wineries at the Walla Walla Regional Airport complex could be signaled by a winery sign with an "E" for "east side."

Challenges raised Thursday by those in attendance included what the roadside signs should look like and which operations should be featured on them.

Some wineries have already created signs. On the south side of town, a cluster of wineries put together a sign similar to what Bosio recommended. Would that sign then no longer meet a standard created if a new proposal were to be adopted? That's one detail that would need to be considered, officials said.

Those in attendance at the morning session said the most important part to remember is the signs are intended to inform, not market. In that sense, uniformity will win out over creativity on directional pieces. Branding of individual businesses would need to take place separate from the regional sign initiative, they said.

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