Saturday, November 26, 2016

City Welcome Sign Gets Thumbs Up - From Me, at Least

I like it.  Sorry, but I do.  It’s big, lit up in blue and you can't miss it.

The new City of Valdez Welcome Arch at the intersection of Egan and Chitina.  Photo by Matt Kinney.

As with nearly every public project, the new City of Valdez welcome sign was controversial and generated much discussion at City Council meetings and over coffee pots and water coolers across town this summer.  Angst over the sign especially heated up after it was announced that the sign would cost much more than anticipated.  I get it.  We spent a lot of money to buy a sign.  Yet, now that the bill has been paid and it’s done (Mayor Ruth E. Knight flipped the switch in October), it’s time to enjoy it.

The sign is more than a stand-alone project.  It's really just one component in a large scale, multi-year redecorating plan.  Much like an individual who undertakes a project to redecorate their house, the City of Valdez Beautification Task Force has been working for a number of years to spruce up the town.  I’m not on the Task Force and have kept up on its activities only peripherally, but let me take a stab at why they're doing this.  I think it’s because people live here (unlike Deadhorse where folks fly in, work, then fly out again).  And, people generally like to live in places that are homey, welcoming, clean, comfortable, well lit, and have some elements of beauty, art, or visual interest.  Judging by the appearance of most homes, we Valdezans fit into this generality.  Nearly every home in our community – be it a mobile home or a custom built home —is well kept.  Lawns are mowed, houses painted to the best ability of the resident, flowers abound in the summer.  For the most part, residents appear to place value on aesthetics, not just function. 

The projects that have emerged from the City’s beautification initiative help make town look and feel like a place we might want to stay a while.  We can, and do, make other arguments to support beautification so that the funding and time spent on it can be better justified – it’s good for tourism, for example—but in the end these projects are for us. 

One of the first notable beautification projects was to improve the small boat harbor:  board walks, fish cutouts mounted on posts, sidewalks sporting fish imprints, and restructured parking.  Next came the creation of pocket plazas with benches, garbage cans, and historical interpretive signs.  Then the improvements to the city dock – including the “Pringle” (some call it a potato chip) which is used regularly to shelter community music and sports events.  Along with these projects, the City upgraded several parks, including extending the civic center hill trail, adding the adorable and well-used pirate themed playground on the park strip, and improving Ruth Pond. 

The Egan Street project is the latest and includes, but is not limited to, the welcome sign.  Along with the sign, the City improved sidewalks, expanded pocket plazas at intersections, constructed large built-in planters, and installed decorative street lights.  All summer, I heard complaints about the project (granted, many of us had construction fatigue in general from all the work being done around Valdez):  how would snow plows possibly get around these new design features without damaging them or the equipment?  How expensive and time consuming will it be to maintain these things?  Won’t the sign blow down and/or will snow build up on it and damage it?  Do we really need so many lights – isn’t it overkill?  It’s so expensive –shouldn’t we spend the money on other things? 

I used to work at the museum where, because of my position and the role of the museum as an important cultural institution, residents would frequently complain to me about our town’s lack of character.  People would admonish me and the board to do something, suggesting things like promoting facades on all the businesses along main street to hearken back to the gold rush days or require business owners to paint or display flowers.  Anything, residents seemed to say, that would elevate the look and feel of our town above utility. 

The improvements on Egan are nice, but in actuality, they are minimal and low impact as municipal beautification goes.  The City Council didn’t pass an ordinance requiring business owners to put gold rush facades on their buildings.  They didn’t ban the shipping containers that so many businesses use for storage.  They didn’t increase taxes to pay for maintenance.  Maybe there will be problems with some of the new features:  maybe the light bulbs will burn out and have to be replaced, maybe a plow will put a ding in a planter, maybe the welcome sign will need shoring up.  I think we can figure out how to deal with these things.

New decorative street lights along Egan Drive dramatically brighten up the street -
a welcome improvement for walkers and runners now that it's winter.  Photo by Matt Kinney.

I like to run and often do so in the mornings before heading to work.  The week after the welcome sign was unveiled and the new street lights were electrified, I took a circuitous run through town.  I ran along the bike trail behind the Senior Center where alders were fading and grass was golden.  I continued on down the bike trail along the Duck Flats, then turned and ran along the boat harbor where seagulls watched over the vessels resting in their slips.  I jogged on toward the John Kelsey Dock, past peaceful Ruth Park and looped under the Pringle.  Then I headed up toward Egan Drive.  I turned onto Egan and was delighted by the cleanly defined corridor created by the neat rows of blue-green light posts.  The decorative hooded fixtures created an attractive border for our main street.  I trotted along, checking out the nice designs on the new walls of the planters, imagining the greenery that will appear in them next spring.  Then, finally, I ran alongside the welcome sign.  It’s contemporary, made of steel, and stylized mountains stretch across the arch.  In bold font, it reads “Valdez Alaska”.  Taken with all of the other pleasant design elements that are now pieced together throughout our community, I turned and gave it a thumbs up.