Welcome to nostalgia
For many, Colorado's rustic sign stirs up an Old West stew of emotion that says both "Howdy" and “Home sweet home”
By Jack Cox
Denver Post Staff Writer

Talk about a border skirmish.

A plan to replace Colorado's rustic state-line welcome signs with a more modern design provoked such a negative outcry in recent weeks that you would think the Broncos were changing their uniforms again.

"Ugly, uninspiring and costly," Denverite David Bryan said of the new look, which was rolled out last month as part of a new "branding" campaign developed by the Office of Economic Development.

"Bland, ugly and completely generic," agreed Debbie Roberts of Fort Collins.

"Boring and uninspiring," sniffed Gene Overturf of Greeley.

Other critics used words such as "nondescript," "lackluster," "sterile," "insipid," "unimaginative," "drab" and "dull." Some were more vituperative, calling the proposed design "horrid" and "repulsive."

The complaints, similar to those that greeted the now-discarded "Mountains and Much More" slogan in the early 1990s, may have had a role in sinking the new design, at least for now. Economic development officials did not return repeated phone calls, but Gov. Bill Owens indicated in his State of the State address last week that the old "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" signs would stay put if his request for more tourism money was honored.

The protesters didn't use every name in the book. But in hundreds of e-mails to the Colorado Department of Transportation - the entity that would put up new signs - people made it plain the '50s-era placards occupy a special place in the hearts of natives and newcomers alike.

"The existing signs are very recognizable, historic signs in the same vein as the classic green mountains with white sky license plates," said Scott Ballstadt of Windsor, in a message that summed up many people's sentiments.

"The proposed new signs are too contemporary-looking and have a rather bland appearance, while the existing signs reflect the rustic, Western history of Colorado," he continued. "It would be a shame to replace signs that many residents and visitors have enjoyed for years with signs that simply complement a current marketing campaign that will be long forgotten years from now. New is not always better."

The furor has pointed up what may be an underappreciated aspect of these oversized greeting cards - their twofold nature. Not only do the signs say "howdy" to thousands of tourists who drive into the state each year, they welcome back thousands of traveling Coloradans who regard them - and proudly - as evidence they're home again.

"One difference between Colorado and a lot of other states is that we're a state of transients,"noted Rich Grant of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. "A lot of people have made a conscious effort to move here, so what you see over and over again is this wildly chauvinistic attitude about Colorado. They feel strongly about everything from the scenery and the mountains to the sports teams."

Aesthetically, the 41 existing welcome signs - half of which are said by CDOT to be in need of replacement soon - don't merely affirm people's emotional attachment to the landscape. Their frontier-style design, while it may strike many outsiders as dated, also conveys a sense of the state's heritage and identity.

"It says 'Old West' without having to write out in text 'Spirit of the Old West,' or something like that," said Roger Johnson, a Minnesota photographer and self-proclaimed "expert" on state welcome signs (see his website at welcome toamerica.us).

Whether Colorado should continue to project the Old West image in an era of increasing economic and ethnic diversity is a question that remains open to debate. Most of the state's new settlers, who typically hail from California and Texas, "care more about the cost of living and the slower lifestyle," suggested John Burnett, a marketing professor at the University of Denver.

In any case, Burnett said, Coloradans shouldn't get too worked up about the promotional value of the welcome signs.

"Research on billboards shows that people spend approximately eight-tenths of a second being open to these sorts of cues, and here we're talking about signs that are maybe 1/20th that size and certainly don't have any profound message," he said.

"In terms of an effective communications device, the welcome sign is insignificant. People coming through who want to stop and take a picture at the state line are going to pay attention to it, but most people won't even notice it."

Unlike Colorado's wooden signs, welcome signs in most other states are made of metal, which lasts about twice as long and requires less maintenance, helping to head off the kind of deterioration that once caused a Minnesota sign to read, "Welcome to Minnesota, Land of 10... Lakes," as Johnson remembered it.

Some states, such as Georgia and South Carolina, are embracing fully landscaped, monument-style signs like those that mark the entrances to many cities. But this approach won't work everywhere.

In Florida, which will revamp its familiar "orange" signs this year, many signs are in such remote locations it would be impractical to install lighting and water for landscaping, said Mark C. Wilson, deputy state traffic engineer.

However they're designed and built, welcome signs seem to evoke the same response among a certain portion of the populace in other states that they do in Colorado.

In Virginia, which is updating its 50-year-old design after a public vote in December, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Donna Mayes said the new version - featuring a larger, brighter cardinal and dogwood blossoms - won out by only a 3-2 ratio.

"We changed but didn't change too much," she said. "There were a lot of people who said, 'I want to stick with the existing sign because when I see it, I know I'm close to home, and it makes me feel good."'

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