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Design specialist speaks about downtown signage

Downtown design specialist Joe Lawniczak credited the Red Wing Walgreens with having a good integration of historic design and corporate branding. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
Oliver's Wine Bar currently has taped up window signs, but owners will apply for funds from the Port Authority to make improvements. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
ArtReach using temporary signage mid-move into the former Kask Electric Co. space on March 20, 2018. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
Temporary signage at Backwoods Framing & Engraving has outlasted its 90 day grace period from the city. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

Downtown Red Wing is having a visual identity crisis — but they're working on it.

Many businesses just starting out aren't investing in long term signage solutions. Temporary banners, meant to last just a few weeks, have been hanging at some locations for over a year. Others, while professionally printed, don't meet best practices for a historic downtown district.

"Building by building it's really important we help business owners with that first impression," said Joe Lawniczak, a downtown design specialist with Wisconsin Main Street.

Lawniczak was in Red Wing on March 20 to present "Facade, Signage and Awning Best Practices for Historic Downtowns." Over 40 attendees came to the event, including business owners, city staff, designers, community members, bankers, religious figures and real estate agents. The event was sponsored by Red Wing Downtown Main Street, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Port Authority.

Lawniczak pushed the importance of having signage that reflects the character of the business inside and, in a city like Red Wing, maintaining the historic facades to let the natural materials and original construction speak for themselves.

All new signage in Red Wing requires a city permit and downtown signs must be approved by the Historic Preservation Commission.

Planning manager and staff liaison to the HPC Steve Kohn said temporary signs can hang for 90 days without a permit, but many signs right now are in noncompliance.

"We don't have the staff to go after things and be consistent and fair," Kohn said. He added a new employee will be added soon who can help with enforcement.

DTMS Director Megan Tsui said when signage is at its best, tourism increases and so does community pride.

"For downtown, we're lucky because it's not going to take much to raise the bar," Tsui said. "Just a few here and there."

To address these concerns, the Port Authority has put together a new sign, awning and facade grant program available for business owners throughout the city of Red Wing. Building owners and commercial tenants can apply for up to $2,500 or 50 percent of the total cost to design, fabricate, install and repair new signs.

Luann Brainard, owner of Backwoods Framing & Engraving, will be one of the first applicants. Designs for a new sign at her downtown framing store were approved by the HPC in 2016, but plans hit a roadblock after Brainard, who owns the building, discovered the whole front facade was dry rotted and needed replacement.

"It's amazing, because we've got a substantial amount of money invested in the building already and the facade is really the only thing that's left," she said. "Should be able to just do it if the money comes through."

DTMS can also connect applicants with design services through Minnesota Main Street, an opportunity that's available exclusively to designated Main Street communities like DTMS. The Main Street design manager can help develop signage ideas that are appropriate for downtown development.

"These are great opportunities for our businesses to take advantage of," Tsui added. "We are really excited the Port has decided to not just to talk improving signage, but put money behind it."