Curbside Appeal of Your Town’s Front Door

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While attending the Nebraska Planning Conference this spring I had the chance to listen to a keynote speech from Ed McMahon of Urban Land Institute (@UrbanLandInst). It was a great presentation about keeping your community unique and special. But what really caught my eye was one set of slides about the entrance to your community.

The Need for Curbside Appeal

So much of the concentration of small towns throughout the Midwest has been on the aesthetic improvements to downtowns. But you have to get people through the front door first. Just like in marketing real estate, curbside appeal is a vital aspect of selling your community to visitors. A community’s curbside, that front door, is the entrance or more so all the entrances to your community.

The slide in his presentation that sparked the fire for me was the one shown below. It is of the entrance to Midfield, Alabama. As you can tell by the signage, the 1980s Cutlass Supreme, and the other cars in the picture, it is quite old. But this nondescript south entrance into the city hasn’t changed much over the years.

Ed McMahon Presentation - Front Entrance to Community

Although the picture above is specific to Midfield, similar entrances to many communities throughout the nation exist. Based on this picture, I have some simple questions for you:

  • Do you have an interest in visiting this town?
  • Do you think the community invests in itself?
  • How likely would you be interested in moving here if you had to relocate to the region?

Code Enforcement is your First Step

First and foremost, it is important to provide regular and consistent code enforcement. Going back to the house sale scenario, your realtor is going to tell you to keep your yard clean at all times. The same concept applies here. If your city code/zoning doesn’t allow for temporary signs in the right-of-way, enforce it. If you don’t have a Code Enforcement Officer, appoint one. Someone that will regularly pick up the signs in the ROW.

The same goes for problem properties. Those unkempt properties that have been in non-compliance with your regulations. If you have one at the entrance, handle it.

Spend the Big $$ on Signage?

Wayfinding plans and signage companies push large monument-style signs that mark the entrance into your community. These are great eye-catchers that are sure to draw the eye of those passing by. They are bold statements of your community’s investment in itself.

But are they necessary to create a memorable entrance to your town? Not necessarily. With the recent impacts of inflation, these signs can cost well into six digits. What if you decide to annex out past that sign? How much does it cost to root up and move that sign?

With community budgets already tight, these costs can draw the ire of naysayers. Some communities elect to install simple, painted wood or metal signs on a couple of posts. These can have a similar visual impact, especially when teamed with appropriate landscaping or other objects that grab attention and complete the look of the site.

Express Your Brand

As discussed in “Branding for Communities: Signage” entrance signage is one of the main ways to express your brand through signage. It is your biggest pallet. Possibly your biggest way to express your brand.

Entrance signage is also when many visitors will get to see your brand. It’s also the best time to link the brand to the city itself. Let’s say, for some crazy reason, the brand of your Midwest town includes a penguin. Hence, visitors may be seeing penguins throughout town through sculptures, directional signage, and other avenues. But the brand might not click with them unless they see it with the entrance sign for the community.

So get your “mark” (logo) or “tagline” on the entrance signage to start conveying your community’s brand early and often.

Schuyler Entrance Sign

Schuyler Monument Sign

Not Just Signage

Going back to the curbside appeal scenario, many realtors push homeowners or business owners to spruce up their landscaping prior to listing the property for sale. The same concept goes for the entrance to your community.

Adding low-maintenance, durable vegetation around your community entrance sign provides color and visual interest. The landscaping can also be added on the other side of the right-of-way to help create a “gateway feel” for those entering the community. Plantings are a relatively cheap way of providing a substantial visual impact to visitors.

However, there are a few considerations to take into account. The landscaping should be low-maintenance, so you don’t have to cut away new growth that is covering up a portion of the signage each year. It should also be durable, to withstand salt spray during the winters and the hot, dry conditions of the summers. It’s also important to consider what types of plantings are allowed in that location. Many entrance signs are located along state or federal highways, which have limits on what can be planted in the right-of-ways.

Location, Location, Location

Gravity, Iowa, only has a population of 150 residents in the southwestern part of the state. But it has a sign that is quite popular on the internet. It’s a fun sign giving this little town some notoriety outside of rural Taylor County.

However, the sign location is less than ideal. This small community rests just to the west of State Highway 148, the main arterial to the town. Other than a house and a greenhouse/nursery business, there is no indication that you’ve arrived, except for a couple of small, green MUTCD-style signs pointing to turn to the west at the next intersection.

Then, traveling west into town this is what you see as you near Main Street. That is where you finally see this sign. At least the back of it (in right-center below).

Negotiating a signage easement in the right location may be problematic. But location and orientation are key to the effectiveness of your gateway into the community.

Make it a Welcoming Gateway not a Future Exit

Your community may have spent millions improving its downtown. Or your parks and trails systems may be top-notch. But you have to get visitors through the front door before they can experience what your town has to offer. Take a look at the entrances into your community and see what changes should be made.