City of Blaine to spend $140,000 on new signage for visitors

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The city of Blaine will spend up to $140,000 as part of a county-wide signage program intended to help tourists and visitors find their way to various attractions within the city.

At their November 25 public meeting, Blaine city councilmembers voted 7-0 to authorize city manager Michael Jones to enter into an interlocal cooperation agreement with Whatcom County and other cities in the county. The non-binding agreement allows the participants to jointly develop “wayfinding” signage in a coordinated effort, saving the cities some money and delegating much of the work to the county level.

Signs would be located both within and outside the city of Blaine. The signs would help direct vehicles and pedestrians to points of interest in Blaine, where it is hoped that visitors will remain for longer periods of time and spend more money on meals and hotel stays. The program was developed by MERJE, a team of design professionals based in West Chester, Pennsylvania, following a 2015 tourism assessment of Whatcom County by Roger Brooks International.

“The signs are oriented towards people who are unfamiliar with the community,” Jones told councilmembers prior to the vote. “From an economic development perspective, it drives longer visits, and that encourages more spending and more stops.”

The agreement establishes a program for cooperation between Whatcom County, Bellingham, Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Sumas and Everson; Nooksack opted out. The agreement proposes that the county manage interactions with WSDOT; obtain final engineering design for the signs; manage the installations; develop a maintenance program; and manage billing and reimbursement. “The county is paying for all of that for everyone,” said Jones. “We’ll all use the same engineering, we’ll all use the same design specs, we’ll all use the same bid documents and we’ll all presumably use the same maintenance schedule.”

Under the terms of the agreement, the city of Blaine will make the final determination of all sign locations – as well as the number of signs – within the city. The city will have veto authority over any signs proposed within city limits. Once installed, signs within the city would become the property of the city. The city can withdraw from the program at any time after providing 90 days’ notice to Whatcom County.

Jones urged councilmembers to take advantage of a rare opportunity to install local signs with county support and funding. “If we don’t participate, it’s not likely that we would be eligible later to do the same thing,” said Jones. “We’re doing it now, comprehensively, to hopefully save money and have one big package.”

The city of Blaine’s share of the cost of the program would be about $240,000. Fifty percent of the vehicular signs would be eligible for a $100,000 grant from Whatcom County’s Economic Development Investment (EDI) Program, bringing the actual cost down to $140,000. Of the $140,000, about $100,000 would be spent on vehicle-oriented signs and $40,000 on pedestrian-oriented signs. To help pay for them, the city would be eligible for a five-year EDI loan at a low interest rate. The loan would be repaid from the city’s lodging tax revenue.

The new signs would add to existing signs, which would not be taken down except in a few instances – where they appear “out of context,” said Jones. Pedestrian signs could possibly include kiosks in the G Street and H Street plazas, while vehicular signs would include signs on city streets, state roads and the I-5 freeway. “The county will take the lead with working with the state to change some of the freeway signage and other state route signage,” said Jones.

Blaine’s signs would be blue in order to reflect Blaine’s location in the coastal region of the county. The signs would each have a circular icon on top, branded with a stylized sailboat indicating the city’s proximity to marine waters. The sailboat icon is not meant to replace the city’s official logo, said Jones. The back of the icons would say “Whatcom County.”

Councilmembers reacted positively to Jones’ presentation. “I think one benefit of this is that the county will take over the job of dealing with the state for signs on the freeway as well as county signs, and we won’t have to be getting too involved in that,” said mayor Bonnie Onyon. “That’s a huge thing, really. That takes a lot of staff time to get all those approvals.”

Mayor Onyon continued: “I think that in time, we will see some benefit in terms of increased sales tax revenue. I think people just feel more comfortable in a community where they can tell where they are going and they are pointed in the right direction. They get more of a sense of place and where things are.”

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