The green and white paint is faded, and dead yellow pampas grass partially obscures the “Welcome to Columbia” sign along eastbound Interstate 70. The wooden sign between the Midway and Stadium Boulevard exits displays a decade-old population estimate: 84,531.
There are towering billboards flanking the door-sized welcome sign and competing for the attention of drivers whizzing by. A smaller adjacent sign names the businesses that covered the gateway project’s cost, including one that hasn’t been around for years, Ameritec Cellular.
The three similar welcome signs installed 15 years ago at the western, northern and southern borders are in similar or worse condition, and the original landscaping is long gone.
“You don’t easily see the city’s entrance signs,” said Richard Perkins, an engineer with the city Parks and Recreation Department. “You pass by it and say, ‘What was that?”’
Perkins and city arborist Chad Herwald have been working behind the scenes for more than a year to develop new welcome signs, a gateway project initiated and financed by Larry Potterfield, CEO of MidwayUSA.
The “Welcome to Columbia” message would be paired with the moniker, “A Community of Excellence,” which relates to Columbia’s distinction as the first community to form a Baldrige Performance Excellence Group.
Potterfield said he’ll give the city the money needed to place the first welcome sign, estimated to range from $50,000 to $70,000, and lead an effort to get other local philanthropists to cover the costs of replicated welcome signs at three other gateways.
The first sign would be placed on the Stadium Boulevard bridge embankment adjacent to eastbound I-70. Three others would be placed along US Highway 63, at Prathersville at the northern border, the Discovery Ridge exit at the southern border and along westbound I-70 at the St. Charles exit.
“We’re at the point now where we’re just looking for feedback on designs,” Perkins said. Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romain has been supervising the project, which they plan to present to the City Council in a month or two.
Herwald and Perkins presented what Potterfield called their “work in progress” during a forum on gateway beautification and “wayfinding” improvements held Nov. 16 at Columbia Regional Airport, the first in a CBT series focusing on tourism development strategies.
MidwayUSA was one of five companies in the nation that won a Baldrige Award last year, and Potterfield is on the local group’s steering committee.
The Baldrige National Quality Program, named after former Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, stresses customer focus and statistics-driven process management. The Columbia Chapter will promote performance excellence in the education, health care, small business, manufacturing, service and nonprofit sectors.
Coincidentally, Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been using “excellence” as the mantra for the organization.
“Everything we do here, including gateways, should be looked at through this excellence prism,” she said at the beginning of the tourism forum.
When visitors arrive in the city by car, bus or plane, their first impressions are important, she said. Enhancing the main entrances could improve how the city is perceived by both visitors and travelers just passing by, Steiner and other forum participants said.
“Let’s face it,” Herwald said before presenting the details of their proposal. “Columbia has one chance to make a first impression. How many people drive up and down Interstate 70 and never stop in Columbia? We want to present something to those people who are driving through and see that sign and go, ‘Wow, that’s really pretty; that’s interesting.’ Then they go home and Google Columbia and start researching it and decide, ‘The next time we go on a vacation, lets take a day or two and stop in Columbia.’”
The current welcome-to-Columbia sign along eastbound I-70 was the result of a campaign led by Chamber of Commerce President Don Laird and Mary Posner, founder of the annual Memorial Day Salute to Veterans celebration at the airport.
The campaign raised $140,000 from businesses to erect signs and landscaping at the five major intersections leading into Columbia.
Former KMIZ General Manager Randy Wright worked with the city to place the gateway signage and directional signage guiding drivers to local landmarks. “With various construction projects around the city, some of the signs have been removed or are simply in need of updating,” Wright wrote in an e-mail.
Herwald said gateway improvement projects have been proposed twice in the nine years that he’s been the city’s arborist. He and Perkins concluded that the last project was too “grandiose” and faltered because of the cost estimates, including $40,000 for annual maintenance.
Along with landscape maintenance challenges, gateway projects must be approved by the Missouri Department of Transportation and the federal highway departments.
Roger Schwartz, MoDOT’s regional director, endorsed the proposed designs and locations Herwald and Perkins submitted.
“Maintenance of the plants is probably the most difficult issue,” Schwartz said during the forum. “The roadside is a very harsh environment for plants to grow in. With clay soil and steep banks, they don’t retain water very well.”
Herwald said their proposed gateways would be low maintenance and would require mowing only once or twice a year. They plan to use low-growing trees and prairie grasses native to Missouri, including red buds, which have varying shades of leaves and flowers so that each gateway would have distinct coloring.
The signs and landscaping must either be elevated and protected by guard rails or be designed to break away if a vehicle leaves the highway and runs into it, Schwartz said.
“If it looks anything like an advertising sign, it will not get approval from the Federal Highway Administration,” he added.
The current welcome signs include an illustration of the MU columns in Francis Quadrangle. When asked whether the university’s logo or imagery could be incorporated into a gateway, Schwarz said MU is a public institution and not subject to the advertising restrictions.
Potterfield said he would prefer a permanent sign made of granite with etched lettering so that it will “still be around 500 years from now.” There would be no public money involved and no references to sponsoring businesses, he said.
“My interest is Columbia, Mo., being a community of excellence,” Potterfield said, and having gateways that “will help drive the community of excellence concept.”