Wayfinding project planned for downtown in effort to improve economic development, connectivity and tourism

A downtown wayfinding project has been in the works for years and on Tuesday, City Commissioners will consider a major step in the project.

The city Planning and Community Development office is requesting $25,000 in tax increment financing funds to use as a cash match for a grant award.

Staff is also requesting that the commission approve an application to the Big Sky Trust Fund, through the Montana Department of Commerce, for $25,000 for the wayfinding project. The funds combined with in-kind staff time total $75,000. The combined funds will be used to hire a consultant to develop a wayfinding signage plan for the downtown, including the Downtown Urban Renewal District. The first phase includes the plan, schematic design, sign programming, design development and documentation/construction documents.

The TIF funding request is slightly less than 9 percent of the current balance of the downtown TIF fund’s current balance of $280,854.98.

Future sign fabrication and installation will require significant funding the and TIF funds are a possible source of some of those dollars, according to staff. The Downtown Development Partnership Board of Director approved the TIF application in August.

According to the application, “wayfinding signage is an essential component of a multi-pronged approach to increasing visitation and facilitating economic revitalization in Downtown Great Falls.”

The goals are to increase visitation in the downtown area; support reinvestment in downtown properties and businesses; increase revenue generated by parking structures and on-street metered parking; create opportunities to highlight significant historic buildings and districts; and showcase the Missouri River corridor and river trail system connections.

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The wayfinding project would highlight downtown attractions and better connections between the downtown and the Missouri River and the River’s Edge Trail.

The initial phase of the project will, according to the staff report, focus on developing a strategy for an overall wayfinding plan, that takes into consideration different forms of communication, modes of travel, points of arrival and travel routes of first time visitors.

The wayfinding plan will culminate in a list of sign locations, content for each sign highlighting visitor destinations and a cohesive design for various sign types. The plan will also strive to be consistent with previously established community branding in the Downtown Urban Renewal District and the Great Falls Montana Tourism Office.

“The image of Downtown Great Falls is critical to its success and revitalization, and a wayfinding system (including directional signage, gateways, iconic landmarks, and community branding) will orient visitors to the community and assist them in navigating their way to local destinations and attractions. People form an opinion about places in as little as 15 seconds, and negative first impressions can be difficult to repair,” according to the staff report.

Every major planning initiative since 2004 has, according to staff, identified wayfinding as a priority. This summer, Great Falls Montana Tourism launched a new branding and tourism initiative to engage visitors interested in the arts and adventure. Staff indicates in their report that the wayfinding project presents an opportunity to engage the community in developing the plan.

Visitor surveys conducted as part of this tourism initiative showed that the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, C.M. Russell Museum, the falls, Glacier National Park, the Missouri River and the outdoors were primary destinations.

Missoula’s nonprofit arts and culture industry was measured as part of a study by Americans for the Arts and the study found that local businesses that cater to arts and culture audiences enjoyed increased economic activity. The study found that “nonresident attendees spent an average of 184 percent more per person than local attendees as a result of their attendance to cultural events.”

A comprehensive wayfinding system, in conjunction with the new tourism initiative, could increase economic activity in the downtown, benefiting local businesses directly, according to staff.