Image of a sign on a lamp post on a sidewalk with the town center in the background.

Middletown, CT

Contact Name
Jen Alexander
Project Dates
2017-2019
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Tags
Social action and justice, Placemaking/placekeeping, Downtown preservation/main streets, Design, Cultural Heritage
The Find Your Main Street/Meet Your Main Street signs elevate the awareness of the rich variety of background stories of entrepreneurs, stakeholders, clerks & civic workers in our downtown business community. The signs wrap around every other streetlight pole in the downtown and combine a wayfinding map listing every business on the street, with a photo essay/interview about one of people who make our downtown work. With 25 signs in all, the story profiles are split by gender, with 40% people of color, spread over a wide range of ages and stages of life and business types. Taken together, they are a visible demonstration of the inclusive nature of this street, where there is room for different kinds of people and dreams, and where an interest in community engagement is an asset.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
A short-term goal of the project is to help visitors explore beyond their standard downtown destinations. An additional goal is to celebrate and preserve our culture of openness, elevating awareness not just to our customers, but to those of us in the downtown business community. Hopefully, understanding ourselves and our unique place in our region will lead to protecting this quality as we encounter waves of gentrification or decline in the future.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
This project was led by one of the volunteer Downtown Business District commissioners, Jen Alexander, who is also the director of the Kidcity Children’s Museum, with assistance from Erin Dopfel, also at staff at Kidcity. DBD Chairs Diane Gervais (owner of Amato’s Toy & Hobby) and Marie Kalita Leary (property owner on Main Street) also contributed to the development of the project, as well as general support and involvement from the DBD Board, including 100% funding support for the project. Rani Arbo and John Elmore, both on staff at Wesleyan University at the Center for the Arts, provided critical support and feedback when considering the design and content of the project. Leadership at the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce and the City of Middletown (including relevant city permitting departments) were involved over the development of the project. Ellen Maurer was the independent graphic designer and Bailey Wright was the freelance writer/photographer on the project; Young’s Printing in downtown manufactured and printed the signs, as well as participating in multiple prototype phases.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
This project is part of the DBD’s overall work to develop and support the downtown business community, which is done through various advertising, beautification, event and advocacy efforts.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
Although we haven’t seen anything like our project in other communities, we’ve been intending to install a wayfinding signage system for many years. One of the challenges is that most downtowns are spread out and lend themselves to a different kind of map, but our downtown is long and narrow, so it made sense to use existing streetlight poles, rather than adding new and expensive sign fixtures to the sidewalks. This presented an opportunity for additional material to join the signs, and over time, the “Meet your Main Street” emerged as the best opportunity to showcase something unique about our downtown. As this project ages, future sets of signs might profile historic moments in town, or local high school students. We expect the signs to change about once a year.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
•Brainstorm and develop plan with help from creatives at Wesleyan and in the downtown buiness community.
•Secure support for the concept and commitment of funding from the DBD Board of Commissioners.
•Engage with stakeholders, including chamber of commerce and mayor’s office to get general endorsement of project.
•Secure permission from department officials including building, planning, and public works.
•Assess potential candidates for the story profiles, and select a slate of possibilities that balances race, gender, type of business, age, and role in business.
•Hire writer/photographer, develop template for signs and map.
•Work with DBD to coordinate map with other downtown materials (i.e. brochures, gift cards).
•Invite candidates for story panel to participate, secure releases.
•Coordinate interviews and edit pieces, and work with graphic designer on panels.
•Secure final approval from each profile subject.
•Work with printer/sign-maker through protoptype to sign installation.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Settling on a concept that was workable for the “story panel” took some time. We initially considered a series of stories about unusual aspects of Middletown - such as movies or books we’re connected to, or various items of historical or architectural signficance. We also considered an “easier” option of historic photos of downtown, with descriptions of what those locations are like today. The current option moved forward because it included an aspirational goal of helping us see something important about ourselves - our role as an inclusive business community - beyond just the “promotional” aspect of the signs.

There was a challenge as the project moved forward and some in the DBD were concerned about limiting the selection to 25 people to be profiled - and worried there would be criticism from those not chosen. Rather than stopping the project, or having a "please sign up if you want to be on a sign" (both of which we considered), we eventually resolved it by realizing that the signs would need to be replaced and that we could consider requests for future versions (or find other ways to feature their businesses in other projects).

The project took a long time - over a year of discussion and then multiple delays (since it is volunteer work and other projects took precedence). This proved to be an advantage since some of the ideas evolved and became stronger.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Taking the time to prototype and write samples of various kinds of “story panels” helped us realize which would have the most impact.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
•Engage stakeholders and secure permissions early. Create physical prototypes that can be approved.
•Find the right professional partners (printer, signmaker, designer, writer, photographer).
•Take your time. This project benefitted from a long lead time as we took the time to find interesting stories and good solutions to design problems along the way.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Although the signs are just recently installed, the impact on the 25 people has been positive, as most did not think of themselves as “leaders” or as representative of something in the community. This has created a bond between these individuals and the DBD. The perception of what makes a person part of our “business” community has been stretched in a positive way, raising awareness about the diversity of people engaged in this work. The stories told in the “Meet your Main Street” panels often mention the joy of having creative endeavors and civic engagement in your life, whether it has to do with your business “bottom line” or not. The stories reveal many genuine connections that link the different sectors of Middetown - creative, economic, and civic.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The signs are new (most installed Dec. 2018). By telling these stories, it demonstrates the kind of engaged life that our community inspires. Hopefully, in reading these signs, people walking on Main Street will feel “there’s room for me here” and will feel encouraged to pursue what makes them a unique individual.
How did you measure this success or progress?
The project is still new and we haven’t done any kind of formal evaluation. We will consider feedback as we receive it - it’s a small town and people generally aren’t shy about letting you know what they think (or at least letting someone else know...and then that person will tell you!)
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
None so far.
CCX Workshop Handout