New signs will soon point the way to downtown's biggest attractions, replacing faded, sometimes illegible, and even out-of-date signs installed a decade ago.
Last week, the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) asked for bids from companies to make and install 62 signs to be placed throughout the downtown core to help direct automobile traffic and 14 signs for pedestrians to be placed along the Main Street Pedestrian Mall.
"We have a lot of new attractions that have come on board in the last year," said Leslie Gower, the DMC's vice president of marketing and communications. "We have [Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid]. We have the Blues Hall of Fame. We have the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and we also have some attractions that are no longer around, so it's just a matter of going in and making all the signs correct."
Also, Gower said, the existing signs have faded "to the point [that] they are embarrassing." A casual survey of some of downtown's way-finding signs last week found them washed out and, at times, completely blank if the sun struck them a certain way. Some signs pointed the way to the Peabody Place Mall, which closed in 2011.
Those signs were placed there in 2005, the product of a 2000 planning effort called the "Downtown Wayfinding Effort." That plan was pushed by the Center City Commission, the forerunner to the DMC, and called for a "consistent and uniform system of tourism-oriented directional signage" to "find attractions and landmarks, minimize confusion, and create awareness of things to see and tour." Before those signs were posted, there were none.
Few know the streets of downtown Memphis like Josh Whitehead. He's the planning director and administrator of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. His daily commute to his office downtown includes exiting I-40 onto Second Street.
"I often think that if I was a visitor, I'd be lost if I was trying to go back north to [St. Jude Children's Research Center], or Mud Island, or Bass Pro," he said.
Whitehead said the new signs are "great news," because downtown is a mix of cut-off streets and one-way streets. He said this "historical phenomena" makes the area somewhat hard to navigate. Also, he said the new signs will replace old signs and won't add to the visual clutter of the street.
But are physical signs necessary in the Digital Age? A quick survey of tourists last week found most of them looking down at smartphones as they navigated the streets downtown, instead of looking up at signs. A tourist mother held up her smartphone when asked how she led her family to Beale Street. A couple standing at a plaque at the National Civil Rights Museum said they plugged the location's address into their car's GPS system.
Even so, Gower said the new signs will help people find their way around, and they'll serve another purpose, too.
"We know most people are using their smartphones to get to and from places," Gower said. "[The signs] are sort of a reassurance that you're heading in the right direction. It's nice to have some pretty signage in the streets, and it touts all of the things we have to offer on the sign. Seeing Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum, Beale Street Landing, the Orpheum — seeing all those things up over and over again, it reminds people that we have a lot to offer."