By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Virginia pretty much blew it the first time a bunch of visitors came calling. When Capt. John Smith and his crew came ashore in 1607, there was no welcome party, nothing to drink and little to eat.
Virginia is hoping to be more welcoming as the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown founding nears: The state has launched a contest for a new highway welcome sign.
Aside from wanting to make a good impression on the visitors coming to the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown in 2007, state officials said there was another, equally critical, reason to ditch the old signs: People were making fun of them.
That crowd was led by Jimmy Barrett, host of a morning radio show for Richmond station WRVA, who said the old sign "looks like something my grandmother knitted in 1954." So Barrett launched an on-air attack against the signs, complete with negative campaign-style ads.
"We blame the old sign for everything that's happened wrong since the 1950s," Barrett said. "The Watergate scandal, the JFK scandal all have one thing in common: That welcome sign was there for all of it.
"We can do better," he vowed. "We can do better!"
Interested Virginians and visitors can vote for their favorite. Here are the options:
"Cardinal" depicts the state bird perched on a branch of American dogwood (state flower and state tree) against a white background. "Virginia" appears above the cardinal in big letters and "Welcomes You" is below it in much smaller type.
"Ship" features a tall ship like those that landed at Jamestown on the left side against a blue background. "Virginia" appears in large script on the right with "Welcomes You" in small type below it.
"Mountains" has "Virginia Welcomes You" stretching above a sun setting behind mountains fronted by water.
"Traditional" displays "Virginia Welcomes You" in big letters against a blue background.
"Dogwood" includes two large dogwood blossoms adorning most of this gold-colored sign, with the words "Virginia Welcomes You" above them.
"Existing" is what Virginia has had since the 1950s. Blue signs with "Welcome to Virginia" in big script with a small cardinal on a dogwood branch in the upper-right corner.
Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation agreed to change the sign and commissioned representatives from several state and federal agencies, as well as Barrett, to come up with the designs.
"Most of the signs are at least 14 years old, and they lose their reflectivity after a certain period of time," said VDOT spokeswoman Donna Purcell Mayes. "Some look pretty dingy."
Mayes said all the new designs include "Virginia Welcomes You" instead of "Welcome to Virginia" because "with the word 'you' in there, we are talking about you, the person that sees the sign."
Alas, none of the designs is quite so bold as the state flag, which depicts the goddess Virtue armed with a sword and spear standing triumphantly over a defeated tyrant.
Asked whether the designs were perhaps a bit generic and could be used for any number of states, Mayes said, "We tried variations on some of our landmarks, but we felt that people entering the state for the first time might not know what the landmarks are."
So much for the sign that said "Virginia Welcomes You to Endless Gridlock" with an artist's rendering of the Capital Beltway at rush hour.
Mayes said it will cost approximately $100,000 to make about 90 road signs to be placed on borders around the state. People can vote for their favorite design at http://www.virginiadot.org/ , at highway welcome centers or by calling 866-340-9342. Votes will be taken through Dec. 4, and a winner will be announced in mid-December. Mayes said 4,100 people had voted online by midday yesterday.
One of those voters was Barrett, not that he's willing to say which sign he picked. Barrett did reveal that he would be "very happy if people either voted for the Jamestown ship or the mountains and ocean" signs.
But really, he said, he'd be happy if voters just get rid of the old one.