Controversy clouds wayfaring sign project

 

 

 

SIGNING OFF — A major controversy has developed in Bridgton over whether to install hand-painted directional signs created by local artist Nelle Ely of Twin Lakes Studio. The pictured signs, being stored in a town shed, are part of a $30,000 wayfaring sign project intended to direct visitors to Bridgton’s municipal resources and attractions.

SIGNING OFF — A major controversy has developed in Bridgton over whether to install hand-painted directional signs created by local artist Nelle Ely of Twin Lakes Studio. The pictured signs, being stored in a town shed, are part of a $30,000 wayfaring sign project intended to direct visitors to Bridgton’s municipal resources and attractions.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Nearly all of the long-awaited wayfaring signs for the town of Bridgton have been finished, but serious doubts were raised Tuesday as to whether they’ll be installed.

Not all of the signs were finished by Nov. 30 as required under the contract the town has with local artist Nell Ely, and four of the signs were rejected, Town Manager Bob Peabody said. “Right now we’re in kind of a legal limbo. The contract is in breach, and she has 30 days to rectify that breach.” He said the town has contacted their attorney, and will know more around Jan. 8 or 9.

The doubts raised Tuesday, however, focused more on the appearance of the signs than how long it took to make them.

“We’ve made a grave error here, and I’d like to see us start over,” Sandra Swett of Swett Signs, Inc., of South Paris, told the Board of Selectmen.

Swett’s concerns were numerous, ranging from the kind of paint and spray finish used to the letter spacing and “cartooney” directional arrows. She said that the town:

  • Did not hire a graphic designer to draw up sign design specifications;
  • Hired an artisan, Nelle Ely, who is not a professional signmaker, to do the job;
  • Paid five times as much as the next highest bidder for “inferior” and “unprofessional” signs that will “portray a negative image on our town.”

Swett said she and her husband Terry are 25-year Bridgton residents who sold much of their business to their daughter, Jennifer Higgins, owner of Muddy River Signs. She urged the board not to hang the signs, but said if they are installed they should be marked with Ely’s name because “we would not want people to think that we produced these signs.”

Ely was not present at the meeting, and could not be reached for comment.

NOT HAPPY — Professional signmaker Sandra Swett told Bridgton Selectmen Tuesday the wayfaring signs produced by Nelle Ely were unprofessional and inferior, and urged the board not to install them.

NOT HAPPY — Professional signmaker Sandra Swett told Bridgton Selectmen Tuesday the wayfaring signs produced by Nelle Ely were unprofessional and inferior, and urged the board not to install them.

“I hate to cut apart somebody’s work, but she’s more of a craft person,” Swett said. Ely, who has operated Twin Lakes Studio in Bridgton for 25 years, has done set design for Deertrees Theatre and custom-designed murals, along with hand-painted signs.

Selectmen voted in April to award Ely the downtown signage contract for a bid of $30,348.35. A second bid of $6,850 was submitted by Welch Signage of Scarborough, a company with a 165-year-old history that has provided municipal signage to many towns and cities throughout the greater New England region.

On Tuesday, Selectman Bob McHatton defended the board’s decision, saying Welch representative John Schaberg did not provide any examples of their work to the bid meeting. Selectman Ken Murphy agreed, but added, “I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not happy.”

Chairman Bernie King said the bid was publicized, and asked Swett why she or her daughter didn’t bid on the job.

Swett replied, “Because they didn’t have any idea what you were asking for.” Told that Ely, as a member of the Community Development Committee, drafted the sign specification list, she said, “That’s a conflict of interest right there.”

Swett explained her concerns about the bid process in a letter she and her husband wrote to the town.

“First of all, we are saddened to think that the town developed a ‘sign specification’ list and passed themselves off as graphic designers that knew how to design and fabricate outdoor signage. Share these specifications with any established sign company, and you can be assured you’ll get the same reaction. We have never heard of such an unprofessional and totally unrealistic set of demands in our 40 years,” Swett wrote.

She said they only found out about the sign contract when her daughter was approached by the town to buy brackets to hang the signs. The brackets and other hardware to install the signs are expected to add around another $5,000 to the total cost of the project.

Resident Dale McDaniel asked the board if they were going to reconsider the sign project.

“So, is it a done deal? We’re talking a $33,000 to $35,000 project here. That’s quite a lot of money,” McDaniel said. Given Welch Signage’s long track record of proven results and their $6,850 bid, he said, “Mathematically this doesn’t make sense to me.”

McHatton said one reason why the board went with Ely was her pledge to create hand-painted, long-lasting signs, as well as to include custom artwork on the four large ground signs directing visitors to the town’s beaches and attractions. Welch Signage uses a machine-fabricated method, by contrast.

“It’s the difference between machine-made and artwork,” said McHatton, who believes the board made the right decision in going with Ely. He took issue with those who questioned the quality of Ely’s signs.

“To some it sounds like the signs are in terrible condition. I don’t see any problem. They are not disastrous-looking signs in any way, shape or form,” said McHatton. “I don’t think I’m going to be around by the time these signs start to fade.”

King said the vote to award the bid to Ely was 3-2, with King and Paul Hoyt opposed. Those in favor were Murphy, McHatton and then-board member Doug Taft.

Resident Mark Lopez said the board should have been more fiscally responsible and asked more questions before awarding the bid. He pointed out that the board passed over a suggestion by Peabody in April to split the bid, allowing Ely to make the larger artistic signs and letting Welch create the more standard directional signs.

Peabody said the town has paid between $15,000–$18,000 so far to Ely, who had pledged to deliver some of the signs by early July. He said the town will be pursuing recovery of legal fees associated with the contract breach.

The board voted 4-0 (Paul Hoyt absent) to take Swett’s letter under advisement.

 

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