Sign project aims to attract more visitors to Westport

WESTPORT — Call it irony that no member of the public managed to find their way to Tuesday night’s Wayfinding Information Session at Town Hall, but several town and state officials on hand used the opportunity to explore possibilities of making Westport a more accessible and visitor-friendly destination.

Initiated by the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee and launched with a $50,000 appropriation for design work, the wayfinding project aims to create better directional and informational signage — both physical and virtual — for the downtown area and “gateways” into the town.

“We’re really at the beginning steps of the project,” said consultant Glen Swantak, principal of Merje, based in Westchester, Penn.

Swantak and designer Jess Church met earlier in the day with a variety of local stakeholders, including town officials and representatives of various nonprofit and commercial groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association, The Westport Library, Levitt Pavilion and Westport Playhouse.

“We’ll go through a long process of whittling down design options,” said Selectman Melissa Kane, who has advocated for the project for many months to increase visitors to town.

The planning process alone will take from six to eight months, according to Swantak, and will likely be implemented in phases, with appropriations sought as needed from the town.

“At its core this is a marketing project,” Swantak said during an informal presentation attended by state Sen. Will Haskell, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, First Selectman Jim Marpe, Kane, and Richard Jaffe, a new member of the Representative Town Meeting from District 1.

Merje has created wayfinding infrastructure for many large and small municipalities, including New Orleans, Miami Beach and — in Connecticut — New Haven and Norwalk.

Asked about difficulties in working with the state Department of Transportation in terms of signage, Swantak said they were generally cooperative, particularly as they got involved in the planning stages from the onset.

“They’re often resistant to adding too many signs,” Steinberg said.

“Anything that is in the DOT’s right-of-way, we will coordinate and get approval,” Swantak said.

“We want to do this with the least amount of signs, to be honest with you,” he said, explaining that natural and manmade landmarks play an equally key role in guiding people to destinations. Part of their job will be developing a strategy to incorporate those landmarks.

“The environment plays a huge role in wayfinding,” he said.

Exactly how many signs and what purpose each will serve are among the matters Merje is hoping to get feedback about over the next several months, through outreach activities including an online survey.

“We will make it our business to make sure that there is a way for everyone to have input,” Swantak said.

He shared a picture of one familiar white-lettered green sign at the Westport border, which he said was his first impression of the town.

“It does say ‘Welcome,’ ” he noted, “but then it says ‘We enforce our laws.’ ”

Swantak said an exploration and consensus regarding Westport’s “brand” is part of what needs to be sorted out in order to unify this project.

“A brand is not only about just putting your logo on it,” he said. “It’s trying to find out what is intrinsic and what is part of that community.”

Kane and others did some informal brainstorming on elements of Westport that might fit that description, including the image of the Minuteman statue, the beach, the river, and reference to the town’s history in the arts and illustration.

Sharing samples from their work in other communities, both consultants noted there was a range of ways to be creative with how signage was even designed — everything from sculptured signs and trompe l’oeil paintings on buildings, to solar-paneled kiosks with interactive databases.

“The physical and the digital all work together,” Swantak said, noting they helped Newark, N.J., develop an app with a walking tour of historic sites.

“We can also use kiosks on a grander scale (and) you can push information to people,” he said, including the possibility of a combined calendar of local happenings.

“Tourism isn’t really our thing, but we have a lot to offer,” Kane said, noting things like the permanent art collection owned by the town.

“But we need to let them know it’s here,” she said.