Finding the way to wayfinding: Effort to make Libby more visitor-friendly faces hurdles

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Three years ago, a study identified the need to improve signs around Libby to help people unfamiliar with the area and make the city more inviting to visitors.

Yet, while those involved are still working to make the wayfinding project a reality, they are dealing with complications.

“Wayfinding is when a town creates a signage scheme that’s attractive, consistent, readable and placed in the proper places on the highway where people can find things,” said Tina Oliphant, Lincoln County Port Authority Executive Director and CEO of the Kootenai River Development Council.

The project got its start in 2015, when, according to Oliphant, the KRDC found some funding to do a “visitor experience assessment.”

“A company came in and sort of played like a secret shopper,” she said. “They had three or four people who wanted to come to a mountain town. They came from different socio-economics and different ages. When they got here, one of the things they said was, they could not find anything.”

The visitors were not even aware that Libby was the county seat, she said. Subsequently, in 2016, the development council took this information and decided Libby needed wayfinding.

Showing the way

Oliphant said wayfinding was intriguing to the development council because of all the visitors who come through Libby on their way to someplace else. Many of them are unaware of amenities and of what Libby has to offer.

People passing through probably don’t care what’s here, but they sure aren’t going to look for it either said Oliphant. She said the development council wanted to let those visitors know where they could go if they decided to take a detour.

Oliphant said wayfinding could show people there is a lot going on here and encourage them to take those detours: ”That goes to a cross-country ski area or that goes to Turner Mountain, or that goes to the county courthouse because, guess what, Libby’s the county seat,” she said.

According to Oliphant, the development council wants to draw attention even to the county courthouse to show that Libby is a big enough area to be interested in.

Detours

Soon after the secret tourist experiment, a consultant was hired to come in and help with the planning. Oliphant said the first thing she had to do was explain what wayfinding was.

“Initially, people thought it was signage where people could find the welfare office because it was tucked away,” said Oliphant. “We were like, ‘no, no, that’s not what we’re doing’.”

An ad-hoc committee was formed of people who were interested in the project. That committee consisted of members of the Libby City Council, the Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce and others in the community.

They committed to keep meeting on it because it took time to get everybody on the same page, Oliphant said.

Through the ad-hoc committee, a list was made of the area attractions, also known as “destination assets,” that would be represented on the signs.

The consultant then came up with where the signs would need to go and a color scheme for them. Oliphant said the consultant told the committee they needed to go and look at the signs in the sun and under different lights to see how they would look to the public.

The next step after approving location and color scheme was to address the cost of the project. She said the cost for the materials to have the signs made was estimated at approximately $100,000.

“We found the money for it and the city put in up to $50,000 as match,” said Oliphant. “The Department of Tourism, who would love to see more Montana towns do this, said, ‘Wow, Libby, you guys are ahead of the curve for doing this,’ we got the money (from the Montana Department of Tourism).”

After securing the money, Oliphant said they now had to address a lot of legal matters regarding where the signs would go, as well as who was going to address the Department of Transportation to place the signs.

Talking to the departments of state and rules and regulations was, at that point, no longer in the hands of the committee said Oliphant. It was now up to the city to handle government red tape.

“This became a bigger project than people realized. It is now 2019 and we don’t have any signs up,” said Oliphant. “I think all of the state stuff they have gotten through, but there are some other signs that are on people’s properties. I don’t know how the city does that. It certainly isn’t me and it’s not the chamber. Although, maybe we could help but the city has taken it on by themselves, so, we are still waiting.”

Impasse

Oliphant said the tourism grant received for the project is written to the City of Libby, and therefore the city has to step up and take it over.

She said some of the project would take place on county land, and she hopes the city will step up and ask who they need to work with on the county level to see the project through.

During a recent Lights, Street and Sidewalks Committee meeting there was discussion between Oliphant and City Administrator Jim Hammons as to whether KRDC or the city is responsible for talking to private landowners about placing signs on their property.

In the meeting, Hammons said it was not the city’s responsibility, but Oliphant said it was also not the responsibility of the KRDC.

Oliphant later said she had not heard about the problem before the committee meeting.

“Knowing if some of these signs are on private property,” said Oliphant. “I would hope the city has experience at that and can try to problem-solve that and say, ‘you know what, I’m going to go and try to talk to this private landowner’ and I would want someone from the chamber with me, or let’s have the mayor come with.”

Oliphant said she believes the city really wants the project to continue and stressed that the project is still moving forward. She said the city lacks a community development employee and Hammons has a heavy workload already as the city administrator.

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