Which way to signs?

When tourists pop into the Shore House Café near the Balboa Pier they're often confused. Are we on Balboa Island? Which way is San Diego?

Bartender Brianne Parmeter, 26, directs them, she says, and does her best to convert their inquiry into a dinner sale.

But tourism leaders and others in the business community think they can streamline the process. They want to install signs around the city that point to the big attractions and little neighborhoods, helping visitors get to their destinations faster. Now, 10 years after they started planning, the signs are ready to be built and installed, but city council members voted to delay funding.

"We're trying to help visitors to the community find their destination, so they're not wasting time driving around instead of enjoying lunch or a cocktail," said Richard Luehrs, president of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, who has helped plan the program. He's perturbed it was postponed. "Make budget cuts to things that don't have an impact on the local economy," he said.

There would be 68 signs around the city pointing to places like Balboa Island, Crystal Cove, Fashion Island and public institutions such as libraries and City Hall.

"Any time we can get people to more parts of Newport Beach, it will hopefully increase their chance to spend more money," said Gary Sherwin, president of the Newport Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau. He likes the proposed signs because they blend in with the city's aesthetic qualities, he said.

The oval boards sport a blue background with white type and gold trim, hanging about 17 feet from the ground. People can already see them around town; in a pilot project starting in 2005 the city installed 22 signs. Most of those are on the Balboa Peninsula, pointing to places such as the two piers.

Some of them, after years of delayed funding, now hang cockeyed or are covered by overgrown trees. For the past two fiscal years the City Council has either withdrawn funding or voted to keep the project offline.

Economic development officials envision replacing the hodgepodge of signs throughout the city. Many are as small as a no-parking sign and their colors vary — from green with white type to blue with white type.

"They have just gone up over time as various business and institutions have requested them," said Assistant City Manager Sharon Wood. "The point is we'll get rid of all the ones that don't match and people can't figure out."

Whoever installs the new signs would have to take down the old ones, an aspect that bumps up the cost. The price tag is what council members balked at recently. City engineers and design consultants estimated it would take between $250,000 and $300,000 to manufacture and install these new "wayfinding" signs.

"If that's the case, I'd like to be in the sign business," said Mayor Keith Curry at the June 22 council meeting. "This is one [project] that would need to be deferred until we're in a better budget situation."

The city had a $12-million budget deficit heading into the fiscal year, but managed to narrow it to $3 million when it adopted the plan in June. Still, this budget included funding for non "essential services," such as a $100,000 grant for the Newport Beach Film Festival.

Bringing visitors to town for events like the Film Festival and helping them get around are good for the economy, Luehrs said.

"You wouldn't want somebody coming down PCH and zipping by a major retailer center like Fashion Island," he said.

Luehrs and others on the city's economic development committee spent much time analyzing which sites are important to identify and where to place the signs. "Maybe too much" time, he said. In 2001 the City Council first considered the wayfinding project, along with the "gateway" signs — the ones marking city boundaries. Those gateway signs were installed in 2008 and have been generally well received.

For some reason, the City Council has held back on the visitor signs.

"It's kind of like the stepchild that gets kicked around every year and we never seem to fund it," said Councilman Ed Selich.

Council members in June said they supported the idea enough to revisit the sign program and seek ways to lower the price. By mid-July, City Manager Dave Kiff said he would have a revised proposal.

It might be better to wait even longer, Parmeter said. She actually likes it when confused tourists stumble in her door.

"It's kind of nice because it generates conversation," she said, "and if you're more personable you usually get a better tip."

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