Berea, Kentucky, has long been a thriving center of Appalachian arts, serving as a magnet for those interested in the regional culture. With many new residents and a growing number of visitors though, there were many people who did not know how to find the city’s important cultural sites. With an eye towards easier navigation within this cultural landscape, the city set out to create a wayfinding system that would guide visitors to these areas, enhancing the city’s tourist appeal and boosting the area’s overall economy.
The city of Berea has a long history of craftmanship, tracing back to its role in the 19th century as a center of Appalachian handmade goods. Later, Berea College formalized this tradition with a distinguished curriculum in arts, drawing students and faculty to the city. This legacy continues with arts and crafts festivals around the year led by organizations across the city, such as the Berea Craft Festival and the Festival of Learnshops. The State of Kentucky has designated it as the “Folk Art Capital” and, in 2012, it became one of the state’s five certified cultural districts. Partly owing to this creative community, Berea has become a regional magnet, with a population that has surged to 13,066 from 9,851 in just a single decade.
As a generator of economic development, cultural tourism brings in $5,000,000 in tax revenues each year, which supports city programs and initiatives such as the “Studio Artists at Berea: Artists at Work” program. This program places their logo on local shop signage to help identify and promote local studio practices. Another program provides space, insurance, and promotion for artists who want to lead workshops at annual festivals. Much of the city’s economy is also centered around Berea College, which was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, and whose early history was linked to the Arts and Crafts movement's desire to promote a regional identity and locally made goods.
Berea was starting from a strong point; it had such a wealth of cultural businesses and organizations that it could often be bewildering for tourists to find them all. With so many new residents and with a thriving tourism industry, clear wayfinding and signage between these sites was crucial but often missing. There was also a need for visual consistency and design standards, as existing signage was done without a guiding plan and often tailored to just a single area or business.
City planners decided that a whole new system for visually orienting visitors and residents was the solution. Such a system could both guide the local residents and visitors and help encourage more pedestrian traffic. It was envisioned that this system could also give a more comprehensive sense of Berea’s cultural assets. By helping people to more readily navigate to and between sites, it would invite them to stay longer and spend more time exploring the city. Planners also wanted to make sure that the new signage would clearly communicate Berea’s reputation as a hub of cultural activity.
The City of Berea headed up the initiative, and the project was managed by the city’s Office of Tourism, which collaborated closely with the non-profit Berea Arts Council (BAC). The two entities had worked before on initiatives, such as the 2003 sculpture exhibition Show of Hands – a display of 12 large hands painted by various artists. Berea College has a long history of arts administration, so the city and BAC reached out to them for help with programming and administering the project. The college also helped select Carol Naughton + Associates (CN+A), a graphic designer who would develop the wayfinding strategy. Other partners included Berea College vice president Steve Karcher, Berea Artisan Tourism District Committee Chair Ken Gastineau, the Chamber of Commerce director David Rowlette, and Victoria Faoro, Executive Director of the Kentucky Artisan Center.
- Berea Tourist and Convention Center
- City of Berea
One of the principal challenges of the project was to compile a definitive inventory of cultural and arts sites that needed to be included. To do this, project organizers assembled a local executive committee that determined the project scope and scale. The committee included the tourism director and assistant director, the city manager, the director and board members of BAC, and the chairperson of Berea College’s signage committee. Every three months, committee members provided progress reports to their respective organizations and sought input from their constituencies. Within the larger project management structure, each of the project partners also took on a defined role. The City of Berea and its tourism office provided staff and primary record keeping for the project, BAC directed meetings and carried out strategic planning, and Berea College identified the outside consultants and collaborators. The team decided to first test their strategy with a system of temporary signage that CN+A developed for the summer 2013 tourist season. Then, after taking into account community feedback and consulting with the state’s department of transportation, permanent signs went into construction bidding in Summer 2014. To use the allocated budget for the year, $150,000 worth of signs will be installed in the first phase of implementation.
The project resulted in an exhaustive inventory of the city’s cultural sites, ranging from the Historic Boone Tavern and artist studios to Berea College resources, and a masterplan linking them into a cohesive network. The temporary pedestrian signage and community events geared toward planning for the project also helped to increase public’s awareness of the community’s cultural assets. It is anticipated that the new system will not only increase the city’s tourism levels, but also increase the number of visits to these sites by residents as well. Though metrics are not yet available, the city plans to more systematically evaluate the economic impact of the project. In 2009, it engaged CERTEC, Inc, an economic development consulting firm based in Kentucky, to compile a report of the city’s cultural economy. In 2015, once the wayfinding plan is completed, it will be able to return to the same format to gauge the project’s impact.
Expecting more of a long-term roll out, organizers were impressed with how quickly the temporary signage became used by residents and visitors. “Within three minutes of installing temporary pedestrian signage, we observed groups of visitors using them,” reported Belle Jackson, Tourism Director at the City of Berea. New ideas have also emerged about how to creatively use the signage system to increase public awareness. For example, project organizers have partnered with the local newspaper to have a ‘treasure hunt’ that can be participated in by young and old alike.