A name to look up to

Landmark: A Baltimore native wants his city's name to loom and glow over the Inner Harbor.

March 30, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Paris has its Eiffel Tower. Rome has the Colosseum and Hollywood Hills its famed plywood Hollywood sign. Now, George J. Kelch Jr. would like to give Baltimore an icon all its own.

It came to the 68-year-old retired salesman from Pasadena as he sat musing by the Inner Harbor one day. Gazing off toward Federal Hill, he decided that what that hill needed was a sign that spells out Baltimore.

It would have to be classy - something natural, the Baltimore native thought. He envisioned letters about 12 feet high by 4 feet wide, in ivy. At night, they could be illuminated with tiny white lights.

"It's the perfect incline," he said. "It's like God created it for a sign. Millions in the Inner Harbor would see it. It's a marketable aerial photo. I'm thinking about an Orioles game or a Monday night football game."

Kelch, who's been working on his idea for about two years, has created a committee to garner support for the plan that would be entirely financed by the private sector.

"I feel like Don Quixote right now," he said. "But everyone I've shown it to has liked it. I haven't heard one negative comment."

He estimates electrical expenses would be about $160 a month, and the whole project would cost about $30,000 to install and operate for several years. The lights would be on from dusk to 2 a.m.

He even envisions a nightly ceremony of sorts - perhaps a cannon going off - and then the illumination of the letters one by one until the entire name is spelled out.

His idea is that various businesses would each sponsor one of the letters that spell out Baltimore on a 36-month lease for $3,000, which would include plants, lights, electricity cost and maintenance. The businesses might choose to sponsor the first letter of their name, he suggested. For instance, the Orioles might choose to pay for the letter "O."

"As a bureau, we believe in enlisting the community to help us sell Baltimore," said Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "If this sign generates attention about Baltimore, it's a good thing for the city."

In fact, about 65 percent of the tourists who come to Maryland visit Baltimore, noted Paul L. Oliver, owner of Dalesio's Restaurant of Little Italy and a member of the Maryland Tourism Development Board.

"Every time there's a major sports event, they focus on the harbor, and I envision this being in the background," said Oliver, who is on Kelch's committee. "It should have been done a long time ago."

In light of the capsizing of a Seaport Taxi off Fort McHenry March 6 that killed five people, it might be appropriate to have a plaque, flowers or other tribute nearby to honor those who lost their lives, Oliver suggested.

The hillside sign also could serve as a reminder to people in the hospitality industry of the importance of visitors and tourism to the region, he said.

"Sometimes we take for granted the crown jewel of Baltimore which is the Inner Harbor, which is also the economic engine," Oliver said.

Manny Spanomanolis, co-owner of Club 4100 in Brooklyn Park and a member of the sign committee, thinks the sign would help showcase the Inner Harbor.

"It's like it's missing, and it should be there," he said. "I can't believe someone didn't think of it before. I guarantee you one thing, I think everyone who's got a camera is going to snap a picture."

Daytona Beach officials found out that's precisely what happened with an illuminated sign affixed to the pedestrian walkway that traverses six lanes of traffic near Florida's Daytona International Speedway.

Although it's an entirely different style of sign - far from the natural variety that Kelch and others are pitching for the Inner Harbor - the potential public relations impact sounds similar.

"It's got enormous value," Jennifer Coto, senior sales manager in convention sales at the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau said of the Daytona Beach sign. "If a film crew is ever in town to do a special event, that sign is guaranteed to be in the film. Whenever I drive to work, I see people standing in front of it taking pictures with it."

But, Daytona Beach also has a more natural sign, landscaping done on an embankment visible to 30 million cars that travel past each year on Interstate 95, at the northern boundary of the city. One side of the highway spells out Daytona Beach, and the other says LPGA, which stands for the road by the same name as the nearby Ladies Professional Golf Association headquarters.

The Daytona Beach sign - once done in white plants, until it was decided that they didn't offer enough contrast - is now made of white, marble gravel and is lighted up at night. The landscaping, which has become a model for other cities, is part of an elaborate design featuring palm trees and fountains that uses natural materials to give the appearance of beaches and moving waves near the letters.

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