2017-02-02 / Front Page

Efforts To Improve St. Ignace Signage Draw Discussion

By Erich T. Doerr

The future of signage in St. Ignace was the main topic of a special city Planning Commission meeting Wednesday, January 25, at the St. Ignace Public Library. The city would like to establish a more uniform, purposeful approach to business signage, offering a clean, well-designed appearance to the town while providing customers with helpful information and allowing businesses to promote themselves. The meeting to discuss these ideas included local business owners, representatives of both Mackinac Island ferry companies, and Michigan Department of Transportation

Newberry Transportation Service Center manager Dawn Gustafson.

Wednesday’s gathering included a two-hour public comment meeting leading into a one-hour planning commission meeting. The information gathered from the meeting will go toward development of the city’s upcoming sign ordinance. The city currently has a moratorium on the construction of off-premise signs.

“We’d love to hear what you think would make it workable,” Planning Commission Chair Betsy Dayrell-Hart said to those gathered.

Ferry Company Billboards And Ticket Booths

The early part of the discussion focused on billboards in St. Ignace used to promote Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry and Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry. The talk focused on the importance of the billboards. Star Line CEO Jerry Fetty and Shepler’s St. Ignace Director of Operations Christine Bawol both said the billboards draw many visitors to their businesses as most tourists are new to the area and don’t know them, taking directions to the docks from the signs. Star Line likely has the most billboards because of its recent purchase of the Arnold Transit Company’s passenger service assets, with Mr. Fetty saying the signs are important to the company’s advertising efforts. Mrs. Bawol said Shepler’s surveyed its customers in 2015 and many still ranked billboards high on their list of reasons for choosing their line. Mr. Fetty said he is surprised with how many new travelers come to the Straits area each year.

Off-premise billboards were a notable area of discussion, with St. Ignace officials requesting information on the large billboards the ferry lines use that often feature attached ticket booths. The booths were added years ago so that the signs could be classified as on-premise by the city, but many of the booths remain closed for significant portions of the year, giving an unappealing abandoned appearance. St. Ignace Mayor Connie Litzner said she doesn’t like the appearance of the boarded up booths that are rarely used. Mr. Fetty confirmed that Star Line still uses all of its booths throughout the year.

Ms. Gustafson said MDOT considers a sign to be “on-premise” if the company that is using it owns the property it sits on, a difference from the city’s policy that a business needs to be operating on it, which led to the addition of the ticket booths. Mrs. Litzner said the city wants the ferries to be able to advertise, but doesn’t want the advertisements to overwhelm the downtown area.

Dr. Dayrell-Hart noted that billboards are usually for higher-speed roads than downtown St. Ignace offers, asking if the signs and their lettering could be smaller. Mr. Fetty responded that he’s heard the opposite, with the company concerned that people aren’t able to read everything on the billboards. The goal is for the message to be informative, but fast to read so no one needs to look at them for more than a few seconds while they can pay attention to the road.

Ms. Gustafson said MDOT has regulations relating to signs and the speeds allowed on the roads alongside them, and Mrs. Bawol added Shepler’s signs are all professionally designed to meet those regulations.

The ferry officials said both of their companies bring a lot of people to St. Ignace, but noted that the city feels underused by travelers at times. Mr. Fetty would like to see St. Ignace’s waterfront dining options promoted more, as it offers more lakeside eating options than Mackinaw City. A partnership between the city and ferry companies could benefit both. Planning commissioner Rick Perry noted that the city will soon be redoing its master plan and doing so may be a good time to use more of the shoreline, adding St. Ignace has more Great Lakes shoreline than any other city in Michigan. Mr. Perry complimented both ferry lines for the strength of their branding.

Planning commission member Mike Lilliquist, who manages the state Welcome Center at the Mackinac Bridge, and Dr. Dayrell-Hart both pointed out the importance of the ferries to vacationing guests. For some, the Great Lakes will be the only body of water this large they’ll ever see and the ferries will be the only boats they ever ride.

Shepler’s recently inquired with Downtown Development Authority Director Deb Evashevski about adding an LED sign to its property, but was told to wait on the proposal. Mrs. Evashevski noted that she understands that the needs of signage have changed since most of the present billboards went up in the 1960s. She hopes that development of the new signage ordinance will see give and take from both sides, perhaps opting to put up smaller signs if more eye-catching LED ones are allowed as an option. A policy on LED lights will likely be included in the new ordinance.

The ferry companies both serve a wide variety of Island-bound passengers, but there are some trends. Many families and younger visitors tend to gravitate toward Star Line, while Shepler’s attracts more overnight travelers and passengers older than 50.

Wednesday’s discussion pointed out that St. Ignace could draw more travelers by promoting travel across the Mackinac Bridge as a fun activity. Mr. Fetty said, as it stands, much of Star Line’s St. Ignace traffic comes from the Upper Peninsula. Some of this may be owing to tourist misconceptions about the Upper Peninsula, Mrs. Bawol said, and she’s heard a misbelief from some unfamiliar with the area that they think crossing the bridge would take them out of the United States and into Canada.

Mr. Fetty said right now St. Ignace is a bit of a hidden gem, but he hopes they can bring more attention to it in the future.

Mr. Fetty said Star Line is planning to rebrand its four St. Ignace docks in the future by assigning each a number, the Railroad Dock becoming Dock 1, the former Arnold Line passenger dock as Dock 2, Star Line’s main dock as Dock 3, and the Mill Slip site being Dock 4. Mrs. Evashevski advised caution with that plan, as it could confuse local residents, pointing out that the Arnold Dock is known as Dock 1 now, in reference to the old state ferry designation before the bridge was built.

Ferry Lane Businesses

Billboards were not the only signs discussed Wednesday, as the city is also looking at its options for placing signage near Ferry Lane to note there are businesses located there. Ms. Gustafson said that wayfinding signs might be a way to do that; the signs post directions and allow color coding to direct visitors to distinct parts of town. MDOT doesn’t allow wayfinding signs to have specific business names, but they can note where businesses are located, for example, an arrow pointing toward “Fred’s Pub” would not be allowed, but one for “Restaurants” would be. Wayfinding signs are additional features and would not replace existing directional signage.

Planning commissioner Don Kallstrom said Kalkaska already has wayfinding signs and they look nice. MDOT will provide the city with samples. If the city pursues them, it could set its own color coding for them.

Dr. Dayrell-Hart said St. Ignace hopes to make its signage more cohesive in the future. The goal is to give the town more of a united identity, promoting it as a community of unique businesses and not a “strip mall.”

Mr. Fetty agreed that unifying signs could help St. Ignace remain unique.

The planning commission’s proposed sign ordinance is looking at how much signage it will allow St. Ignace’s businesses to have. The size, placement, and materials used for the signs will likely be the focus. For non-waterfront buildings in the general and central business district, one concept proposed would be four signs with none up front occupying more than 25% of the square footage of the front of the building’s first floor. Businesses in residential areas may be allowed one sign.

The ordinance will need to factor in zoning districts, setbacks, street frontage, curb space, and the total acreage size of their parking lots. A business along the street would have different signage requirements from one that has a parking lot between it and the street. A minimum height rule to make sure signs can be walked under by pedestrians is also possible. Dr. Dayrell-Hart hopes the planning commission will receive input from the DDA during development.

General signs, like “in” and “out” messages on a door, likely would not be regulated by the ordinance. Interior signs also likely would not be regulated. Dr. Dayrell-Hart said the ordinance should stick to topics related to health, safety, and wellness. The policy will likely require signs to be made of solid, safe materials. A chalkboard sign, for instance, would be allowed, but a cardboard one likely wouldn’t. Moveable signs will need to be sturdy enough not to be moved by the wind. Roof signs are rare in St. Ignace, but will likely be discussed by the commission at its next meeting Tuesday, February 7.

The 2015 Reed v. Town of Gilbert Supreme Court decision means that it is not legal for the city to regulate the content of signs, although the city does have some public obscenity rules that could be used to prevent signs with profanity or lewdly displaying body parts. Mayor Litzner said her concern on the topic arises from a sign in a store window during last year’s presidential election that displayed a profane message regarding a candidate.

One likely exception to the city’s proposed sign ordinance is likely to cover gas stations, as the nature of their business requires a lot of signage. The permitting process for gas station construction already covers all of the city’s signage policies for the businesses. The only gas station in the St. Ignace city limits is the Shell station downtown at 200 South State Street.

The planning commission will hold at least one more stakeholders meeting with members of the DDA present before it develops the ordinance and sends it to the city council for approval. Dr. Dayrell-Hart wants the ordinance to meet the needs of as many people as it can. Also likely is a walking tour of downtown to examine all the advertising there.

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