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Waitsfield, VT 05673
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We have the answers and the expertise here

02/28/2008

By Michael Lewis

I read the latest article in today's paper about signs in Waitsfield written by Randy Pelley and JoEllen Barton. For the record, I don't operate a retail business so I have no need for a sign myself. And I haven't had an opportunity to see the existing sign regulations. However, signs are a form of marketing communications, which has been my profession for more than 20 years.

I have read the many articles about the sign issue, but they all seem to address the symptoms rather than curing the disease. In my opinion, the problem is that everyone is basing whatever solution they support on the wrong premise. The point in the article about "disconnected buildings and mini strip malls" is the crux of the problem. For the foreseeable future, I'm sure Route 100 will stay where it is -- running through the middle of historic Waitsfield Village and Irasville. I'm equally certain that no one is prepared to bulldoze the area and rebuild it from scratch.
 
Local retailers face an uphill battle to attract customers even to the extent of simply communicating that they exist. The question is, "How do we make this work with what we have?" The basic premise that pits scenery against commerce, clearly hasn't worked. The problem is how we view the area, particularly Waitsfield, Warren, and the part of Fayston along Route 17 and German Flats Road.
 
In the 10 years I've lived in Warren, I've seen these three towns deal with their own issues separately for the most part. In order to allow local commerce to thrive and maintain the scenic character of the area at the same time, The Valley really needs to be viewed as a single resort community -- at least as far as this issue is concerned. It shouldn't be impossible to work together on it.
 
We have the answer and the expertise right here in The Valley. If we view the area as one big resort, the solution is the same one that many resorts and resort communities use: a wayfinding system. Sparky Potter at Wood & Wood is our local expert on most, if not all, of the solution. Ironically, in today's paper there was also an article about Wood & Wood winning a first-place design portfolio award.
 
I have learned about wayfinding systems and, generally, how they function from work I've done in the past with a graphic designer (the one that did the banners and graphics for the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington), a landscape architect, and from conversations with Sparky.
 
A wayfinding system is a cohesive system of signage, graphics, and other visual cues that inform and guide people through a particular space, whether interior like inside a building or exterior like throughout a resort or school campus. If it's planned and executed properly, the end result gives people the information they need and gets them where they need to go. At the same time, it blends with the environment.
 
If you go to Fletcher Allen Hospital and follow the colored stripes on the floor, that's part of a wayfinding system. In a large supermarket, graphics along the walls, combined with various signage, sometimes floor graphics, etc. are also a wayfinding system. At a resort or a school campus, a comprehensive system of signs, pathways, and landscaping like hedges or shrubbery all with a consistent appearance provide the visual cues a visitor needs to navigate the area.
 
Landscaping can be an important part of a larger wayfinding system. In an earlier article by a store owner on Bridge Street in Waitsfield, the author mentioned that a customer had asked where the covered bridge was. They had no idea it was just outside the store. With the right wayfinding system in place including an historical (or point of interest) marker, this question would not likely be asked.
 
If I remember correctly, the same article discussed the issue of attracting customers to Bridge Street businesses. I would suggest that the answer would be a wayfinding system. Ideally, having signage consistent with a larger system throughout The Valley and landscaping designed to accentuate the intersection of Bridge Street and Route 100 and provide visual cues that it's a retail center would improve the situation.
 
I'm not suggesting that we plaster signs all over the place or paint graphics on our buildings. Well designed wayfinding systems can accomplish the same result while blending in by using indigenous materials and designs that compliment the surrounding environment and communicate a sense of place.
 
I'm sure there are very expensive ways to do this. I would be willing to bet there are also ways to approach it, at a more modest expense that could help. Such a project could also be done in phases over time.
 
If done well, a system like this could go a long way toward supporting businesses without compromising the scenery. It will take some planning and effort, but it could resolve the commerce versus scenery issue in the end.
 
 
Michael Lewis lives in Warren.
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