Covington, KY: Co-Sign
How can artist-designed signage contribute to a larger economic and revitalization effort within an existing business district?
The City of Covington partnered with the American Sign Museum to bring CoSign, an initiative created to provide local artist-designed storefront signage to area businesses, to a neighborhood targeted for economic redevelopment and revitalization. With a focus on education for both small business owners and artists, the initiative provided employment and training opportunities for artists while creating new signage for small businesses to attract visitors to an area known for commerce and creativity.
Directly across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, Ohio; the City of Covington sits at the intersection of the Ohio and Licking Rivers and is one of the larger small towns in the Northern Kentucky region. Today the city is known for its historic neighborhoods, including 13 registered National Historic Districts. Visitors are drawn to the large concentration of historic architecture and eclectic mix of small businesses and restaurants. In addition, Covington hosts several arts and culture events and festivals, including the First Friday Gallery Hop, Maifest, Mainstrasse Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras, the Original Goetta Festival, and Fresh Art.
As the fifth largest city in Kentucky, Covington’s population is approximately 40,000 residents. The city has 19 distinct neighborhoods, ranging from several hundred to over 10,000 people. Train tracks divide the town into two halves: to the west, MainStrasse Village is the heart of the German community and an anchor of Covington tourism with its collection of 1870’s structures, ethnic restaurants, and the Oktoberfest and Maifest annual festivals. To the east, a business district is home to a variety small businesses and a budding entrepreneurial community.
The targeted business district, located on Pike and Madison Avenues between 4th and 10th Streets, was in need of new activity and more foot traffic to increase sales. An area in the early stage of redevelopment, businesses in the district include a local brewery that broke Kickstarter funding records, a new hotel, new housing developments, and an expansion of the local community college. CoSign and the City felt this was the perfect time to add to the development and give the community a facelift through the creation of more thoughtful signage. The existing signage in the business area suffered from multiple issues: weathered facades, unsafe installations, inadequate size or scale, or incompatibility with the business type. There was also a need to work with business owners in conveying the value of well-designed signage to improve their business health and for artists to design signage that could weather the elements.
Together, the City of Covington and CoSign envisioned a unique opportunity for local businesses to receive new handcrafted signage through a rigorous competition with local artists. In the defined target area, the 400 to 900 blocks of Madison Avenue and 7th and Pike Streets between Madison and Washington, they invited all businesses to participate with no restrictions on the type or age of the establishment. From their 2012 pilot program in Cincinnati, they knew a concentration of signage brought new identity to the area. The partners wanted to do the same in Covington by creating high- profile signs for businesses and new opportunities for local artists. Educating small businesses on the importance of signage and communication to increase sales was a key component of the plan. Similarly, they educated artists, especially those typically working on two-dimension or interior projects, on how to design exterior signage with its layers of city regulation, fabrication / installation logistics, and durability issues. Widening the scope of the initiative, they also wanted to try electric signs for the first time in Covington, as they anticipated a more efficient permit process than was available in their past work. Electric signs in Cincinnati require a special hearing for the permit and in a six month period of time, it wasn’t possible. But Covington had a more streamlined process with just an additional permit application that did not add any additional time to the already tight timeline.
The City of Covington, through its Renaissance Covington program, partnered with the American Sign Museum to bring CoSign to the city, following CoSign’s recent successes in Cincinnati. Tod Swormstedt, Founder and Executive Director of the American Sign Museum, took the lead with Project Manager Erica Bolenbaugh to provide a strong organizational structure and oversee the work of the consultants. City of Covington's administration had to approve all of the sign installations through its permit procurement procedures. Renaissance Covington, an entity within the City of Covington’s Department of Development created to revitalize Downtown Covington, was the link to the local business community. Twenty-two local businesses applied and were accepted to be part of the CoSign project, including the new brewery, a barbershop, art galleries, and restaurants. The success of the project was based on the need to establish a coalition of consultants to assist the artists and small businesses owners, including engineers to approve advise designers on compliance, and sign fabricators to construct the artists’ designs.
With a tight project schedule, CoSign went from project announcement to sign unveiling within a six-month period. Engagement with the local community was key to the success. Project leaders solicited small business owners and artists through emails and postcards, postings in a popular monthly arts newsletter, announcements at City Council meetings, and press releases. CoSign ambassadors personally visited 90 businesses to introduce the project and invite the business owner to attend one of two mandatory workshops (also for artists) to receive more information. Door hangers were left with businesses owners unavailable to discuss on-site. At the workshops, CoSign reviewed details of the program and helped artists to connect with small businesses for the first time. The competition began with artists proposing designs for the businesses. The businesses selected their preferred design and met with the artist at a Blitz event, an opportunity for business owners and designers to refine their designs based on feedback from engineers, fabricators, and historic and zoning experts. There they had the opportunity to refine their design based on engineering, fabrication, historic, or zoning concerns. A jury of local design and sign fabrication professionals determined the top designs, while each business chose their favorite. Businesses and their chosen design/designer formed a design team, and project consultants guided the selected design teams through permitting and fabrication. Once a sign was completed it was installed and covered. Each business owner uncovered their sign at an official unveiling event.
Wanting the support local festivals and capitalize on an already existing arts event, the nine new sign projects were unveiled to the community at the 10th anniversary of Art off Pike arts festival in September 2014. Tod Swormstedt reports, “The fact that we are able to create a competition, recruit businesses and designers to participate, get all signs through permitting, fabricated, and installed within a six month period is our biggest success.” Following the 2012 pilot program in Cincinnati, CoSign gained valuable experience in Covington, applying what they had previously learned to a new community with different regulations, participants, and state of economic redevelopment. With a long-term vision of implementation across the county, CoSign continued to learn lessons and refine a “toolkit” it is developing to expand the program to other communities. This toolkit will be made available in the future through their website.
Project leaders were surprised to see a growth in the number of small businesses that applied, increasing from 16 to 22, which included several businesses that had not opened yet. An unexpected result of the project was the impact it had on the participating artists’ design process. Several artists commented that learning to design for the outside elements has affected their work. Already two businesses that were not selected by the CoSign jury have expressed interest in fabricating the sign on their own, and CoSign is hopeful that the project will encourage other businesses to consider improving their own signage, as well as make facade improvements to their building.
- The Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile, Jr./US Bank Foundation
- ArtPlace America
- City of Covington sign permits
- Historic guidelines - number of signs, sign placement, etc.
- Zoning - where is exactly the sign can be placed, the dimensions of the sign
- Engineering - making sure the sign can be safely hung
- National Electric Code