Ortwein Signs Bedecks Chattanooga Icons
“A city isn’t so unlike a person. They both have the marks to show; they have many stories to tell. They see many faces. They tear things down and make new again.” – Rasmenia Massoud, “Broken Abroad”
Massoud’s insight simply underscores how cities continually reinvent themselves, with signage playing a role in how municipalities present their personalities – and their ever-evolving sense of place – to the world.
The end of World War II dovetailed with the Baby Boom’s onset, and a period of vigorous economic prosperity, and this period of affluence triggered a mass exodus from city cores to the suburbs. As a result, most cities fell into a default pattern – city centers that, except for the impoverished who were stuck there, went dormant after business hours. Soon, downtown infrastructures crumbled. In contrast, suburbs exploded with shopping centers, chain restaurants and retailers, and quiet, cul-de-sac streets filled with homes that gradually swelled into “McMansions.”
Thankfully, this trend is reversing. Many younger, upwardly mobile professionals now reside in downtown cores, and businesses (and their signs) have followed them. And, in many suburbs, many leaders have heeded their residents’ desires for more walkable communities, and created pedestrian-friendly districts replete with a diverse repertoire of enterprises (and, again, more varied signage). In both cases, signs win.
Throughout the early 20th Century, Chattanooga developed as one of the industrial hubs of the Southeast. However, as manufacturing became a less essential part of the US economy, the city lost jobs – and, according to the city’s Wikipedia page, approximately 10% of its residents. Resolutely, the city emphasized its appeal as a tourist destination to revitalize itself. The city has numerous attractions, such as the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Museum, Ruby Falls and Rock City (its “See Seven States” billboards are ubiquitous throughout Dixie). As such, local leaders spearheaded the Tennessee Aquarium in 1992 along the Tennessee River, and developed the 21st Century Waterfront Plan in 2005, which triggered a $120 million investment in economic development.
Founded in 1923, Chattanooga’s Ortwein Signs has grown and evolved along with “Gig City” (a nickname Chattanooga earned in 2010 when local utility EPB launched 1 GB/second internet service, reportedly the fastest in the Western Hemisphere). Today, the shop operates two manufacturing facilities that encompass 40,000 sq. ft., and has a staff of 35, which includes sales offices in Nashville and Knoxville.
Ortwein’s president, Jim Teal, a former mechanical engineer whose skills have translated well to the sign industry, said a key local development that’s benefitted his shop has been the establishment of overlay districts throughout downtown Chattanooga, which has enabled the creation of more small businesses within areas that were previously zoned for heavy industry.
“These districts have greenlighted the usage of more electronic digital displays in Chattanooga over the last five years,” Teal said. “They’re still not heavily used, but demand is growing.”
He noted that government-spending cutbacks have impacted sign regulations: “As budgets have shrunk, and officials have more demands, they’ve been less available to us. When we’re able to work with code officials, we’re able to make positive changes that help create a vibrant sign market. But, limited access has impacted our ability to accomplish that.”
According a Chattanooga Times-Free Press article, the city’s population grew 3.6% from the 2010 census to mid-2014. Teal said Chattanooga codes are aiding the sign industry with changes amenable to multi-tenant signs, as well as signs that project from buildings. As Chattanooga’s artisan
community grows – a vestige of its manufacturing legacy, perhaps – patina-finish or recycled-content signs have become popular.