PORT TOWNSEND — Hoping to explore businesses in downtown Port Townsend, Warren and Virginia Ballard of Georgia stared at an informational sign Thursday at the corner of Water and Taylor streets.
Within seconds, the couple turned away and pulled out a smartphone.
“I have seen people stand in front of those signs and say, ‘Well, where is that store? I haven’t seen that store,’” City Council member Pam Adams said.
The merchant information signs — 10 downtown, two uptown and two at the Haller Fountain stairs, each with a map and space for eight removable metal business placards — were installed in August 2014 but have not been updated since 2015.
“They never really took off,” said City Council member Monica MickHager. “Some of them have been empty the entire time. And I think most people get their directions now from their devices.”
During a special meeting Monday, the City Council unanimously signed off on a plan to retire the signs and replace them with vignettes highlighting the history of the Victorian-era seaport city.
“There’s a lot of cool history here in town, and we want to make it accessible to both locals and tourists,” said Nathan Barnett, a Port Townsend Main Street board member and director of Olympic Peninsula Steam, both of which have teamed up with the Jefferson County Historical Society to develop vinyl decals featuring historic images and brief written descriptions of historical people, places and events.
“Not only do they have a lot of great images and some fantastic artifacts … they also have great oral history that [Historical Society Director] Shelly Leavens is especially passionate about making visible to our community,” he said.
An accompanying website is under development, which will be linked on each new sign by way of a smartphone-readable QR code.
The new signs — which will include themes such as fires, the old Union Wharf, maritime history, colorful characters, the city’s early days, and back alleys and side streets — are expected to cost less than $200 each to produce and be installed in March or April next year.
“We’re producing the best content we can; we’re not doing this the fastest we can,” Barnett said. “This is nobody’s day job.”
In June 2019, the city, the Historical Society and Main Street signed a letter agreeing to collaborate on repurposing the neglected wayfinding signs. The city also budgeted $3,200 from its general fund to pay for the project.
On Monday, Barnett told the City Council that Olympic Peninsula Steam would be happy to pick up the cost.
“We’re passionate about getting it done, and I don’t want to take money out of the city’s coffers at this time,” Barnett said, later clarifying that costs will be split between Olympic Peninsula Steam and Main Street.
The city’s Historic Preservation Committee gave the project its blessing Sept. 1.
“It was unanimous how happy we all were that something else is going to be used,” said MickHager, the City Council’s liaison to the committee.
City Council member Amy Howard, a former Main Street board member, said the outdated merchant signs have been a concern for the downtown nonprofit for years.
“This is an elegant solution for an annoying problem, and I’m glad that it is being done so cheaply,” she said. “Keeping signs updated with changing business information is also not cost-effective.”
Though the project had been in the works well before the coronavirus pandemic, Barnett said it will do well to promote the city’s history during a time when many are still nervous about visiting indoor museums.
“It’s a really cool thing that groups of children and visitors can do socially distanced outdoors,” he said. “It’s kind of a perfect lecture series.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by phone at 360-417-3509 or by email at [email protected].