A Towering Canvas for Selling a City

Times Staff Writer

In Alma, Ark., the water tower announces that the city is the Spinach Capital. In Poteet, Texas, a similar structure is painted like a strawberry.

But in Santa Ana, there are more serious pronouncements on what the city says is the West Coast’s largest free-standing water tower.

One slogan, “Education 1st,” has become widely criticized because of underperforming city schools.


A second motto -- “Culture and Arts” -- was added in the late 1990s to promote the city’s nascent artists district.

Nearly 12 years after it was last painted, rust is enveloping the 153-foot tower, and City Council members are considering how they can use the structure, which can be seen from all directions, to better promote Santa Ana.

The tower was built in 1928 and has been watched over daily by city employees to ensure that vandals do not dirty the city’s water, said Tom Coughran, Santa Ana water resource manager. The tank can store 1 million gallons but usually contains about 800,000, about one-tenth of city reserves. The remainder is stored underground and in reservoirs, Coughran said.

Because towers require lots of maintenance, most other Orange County cities took theirs down or made them essentially ornamental -- except for Seal Beach, Coughran said.

Now Santa Ana council members see the tower as a means to highlight the city’s assets. Council members have hired an advertising agency -- for $10,000 -- to come up with a graphic design for the tank.

At a recent meeting, Joe Duffy of ad agency Truth and Advertising showed council members a draft that includes the words “art,” “education,” “culture” and “community.” “These are four things that contribute to the fabric of the city,” Duffy said.

Each word would have an accompanying graphic, and the graphics would be interconnected. The final graphic has not been completed, and no date has been set for the council to see the finished version.

“The water tower is one of the most observed landmarks in the city and beyond,” said Councilman Jose Solorio. “What we want is a simple but striking design that features bold and important words. They are all the things Santa Ana wants to showcase.”

City Councilman Mike Garcia has suggested that Duffy consider an electric sign with changing messages. “It’s really a unique thing, and we could use the tower to promote events coming up,” he said.

Duffy said he would determine if its cost would exceed what the city wants to spend. Officials expect to pay $500,000 to paint the tower, Coughran said.

Officials are particularly concerned about promoting Santa Ana because they believe the city’s reputation has been unfairly tarnished by a once-high crime rate.

“It’s a big water tower that a lot of people see,” said City Manager David N. Ream. “It’s our chance to tell them what Santa Ana is all about.”