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New Wayfaring Signs Cause a Stir

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The new gateway sign at Memorial Drive and Main Street. Photo by Carla Occaso

After years of planning, Montpelier has finally rolled out a new wayfinding sign system. But not everyone is pleased with the results. 

The wayfinding sign project was spearheaded by Montpelier Alive in collaboration with the City of Montpelier, to bring a comprehensive wayfinding system for the downtown and the Route 2/302 business corridor. The project includes an entry sign, 32 vehicle direction signs, seven pedestrian signs, five parking signs, and three informational kiosks. 

The welcome sign, located at the corner of the Main Street and Memorial Drive downtown gateway, is an obelisk with “Downtown Montpelier” written vertically in an Art Deco-style font. It is the most noticeable of the new signs, and the most controversial, at least on social media.

“This is not an appropriate sign for this historic, quaint city,” wrote Montpelier resident Irene Stewart on Front Porch Forum. “This sign would be much more appropriate on Broadway, in New York City, in front of an ultra-modern skyscraper. It could have been a sign saying, ‘Welcome to our Historic Downtown Montpelier,’ maybe on wrought iron, or something similar.” 

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Aesthetics were not the only problem for Irene, either. “It is not only the signs, but that an out-of-state designer was hired to “brand” Montpelier. The money should have stayed in Vermont, or better yet, in Montpelier.” The project was designed by SurfaceMatter Design, based in Providence, Rhode Island. The firm designed a similar wayfinding campaign in Worcester, Massachusetts, and ultimately had the winning proposal for Montpelier’s project. Some of the design elements can be seen in this presentation from 2016.

Some folks also criticized the project’s cost. Stewart echoed the opinion of others when she wrote that the signs were “a total waste of money.”

The Bridge reported in 2019 that $200,000 was allocated for the project, $100,000 of which came from grants from the Vermont Downtown Development Board, $9,000 from the Main Street Grants Program with additional money coming from the Capital Improvement Program Fund and Montpelier Alive. 

Former Montpelier resident Dot Helling wrote that she knows at least two locals who want to start a petition to have the obelisk removed. Helling considers the signs “fluffy clutter,” and is even willing to help in any community movement that may try to bring the signs down.

But the reactions are not all negative. Some have welcomed the new signage as a well-needed addition to the city. 

Leane Rexford said that before she moved to Montpelier, it was easy to travel on Route 2 and pass the downtown without realizing it was there. “The wayfaring signs are very useful, and I’m happy to see the forward-thinking changes.”

Jeff Thomson, co-owner of Getup Vintage Clothing, agreed that the signs will make the downtown more distinctive to non-locals. “Since we opened our shop 13 years ago, I’ve often thought about how the layout of Montpelier is not intuitive to visitors who come off of 89. When it comes to boosting the local economy and attracting tourists, I think that the signage will be incredibly effective and I hope that people’s knee-jerk negativity doesn’t force the city to take it down.”

In response to the public’s mixed feelings, Montpelier Alive Executive Director Dan Groberg and Mayor Anne Watson responded to the public’s mixed feelings in a joint statement posted on Front Porch Forum. The post stated that the process “involved significant public input” as early as 2016, citing City Council meetings, discussions with businesses, and public input meetings.

They also reiterated that the signs were installed to help visitors navigate the city and were also meant to “establish Montpelier as a landmark destination.” Although some locals have pointed out that the design looks disjointed with the rest of the city, Groberg and Watson point out that the font used for the lettering is the same font used for the Transit Center. If the signs look modern, it is to capture “the innovative spirit of the city.”