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OPINION - For the birds

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  $100,000 in taxpayer money for highway median bird sculptures is unacceptable. Hopefully this can be derailed before more birds are “installed”. There’s another $200,000 to expand this bird-ing misadventure on the other side of Highway 51. (Ironically, those birds are more likely to be seen by people heading out-of-town than into it.)

The idea is to create gateway imagery for people as the drive into Wausau. It’s a fine idea. It’s poorly executed.

The first problem is that metal sculpted birds on the median of a busy street isn’t the proper image for Wausau. I’ve supported gateway initiatives before. In Ithaca, New York when the city rebuilt the main bridge into town, they spent extra on the architecture to make the structure an impressive gateway. Money well spent. The entrance into the city has been turned into a local landmark, and drivers do feel like they’re arriving somewhere. Canisteo, New York – a much smaller town, has a huge living sign. The name is spelled out in giant hedges on hill overlooking the town. Paying money to maintain it is a reasonable investment. (The local boy scout troop maintains it and trims the bushes twice a year.)  But most cities – the big ones, and the good ones – have gateways that Wausau could never hope to duplicate. The Gateway Arch, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Hollywood sign are signatures of their respective cities. Wausau’s skyline, while impressive from 1st Avenue while looking across the Wisconsin River, is nothing like that. Most people, except for the tourists who come into town for the once-a-year Birds In Art exhibit at the Woodson Museum, won’t get it. Most won’t think for a moment that Wausau is a cool, progressive city. They’ll think ‘why are there birds in the middle of the street?’

Second, the cost is a problem. Like with so many things, once tax dollars are involved the price goes sky high. The next time you drive by, take a close look at those birds. Would you pay $100,000 for them? Isn’t their real, fair-market value half of that – or maybe less?

The obvious (and better) gateway is the wood signage with the city logo at the corner near Marathon Park. The city could have spent more money improving that – perhaps with bigger, bolder planters and flowers or surrounding the sign with year-round shrubbery and 24-hour lighting. We could even put two or three other similar ‘Welcome To Wausau’ signs at other entranceways to the city. It would cost only a few thousand dollars. It would also be more effective at creating city identity and space-boundaries. But less expensive and more effective are too often lost when government goes about the business of spending our money.

Chris Conley
10.25.13