This fall, as a result of two years’ worth of planning with the city and full funding from the college, the city will install two new welcome signs on M‑99 that read “Welcome to Historic Hillsdale: Home of Hillsdale College.”
“We want to have something that identifies what stands out in the town,” said Chief Administrative Officer Richard Péwé. “In my opinion, most people would say it’s the college.”
“It’s The People” has been the unofficial city slogan since it was placed on the sign more than 20 years ago. While the phrase has become commonplace among students and locals alike, college and city officials believe it is time for a change.
“I think people always thought it was benign and didn’t say anything about the town,” Péwé said. “Often times, people do tease the city about the sign and the slogan is seen as something of a joke. Even when I was a student. It doesn’t say anything about us being unique.”
In January of 2014, the Hillsdale College administration approached the city council with the proposal. The college offered to pay for the new signs and agreed to work with the city manager and officials to come up with a suitable design.
While the final cost will not be figured until they are installed, Péwé estimated the cost of the signs will come out to around $8,000.
According to Hillsdale Zoning Administrator Alan Beeker, the city was eager to take the college up on its offer to redesign the existing signs.
“Hillsdale was willing to foot the bill, and we saw it as a great opportunity,” Beeker said. “It’s an opportunity for both the college and the town to capitalize on the college’s brand.”
Updating the welcome signs has been a pet project of Beeker’s since he started working for the city, but Beeker said that, due to numerous state regulations and Michigan Department of Transportation guidelines, they had to go through several redesigns over two years.
“Since I started here we’ve been working on a design,” Beeker said. “And we’ve finally agreed on a design with the college last month that also meets the MDOT requirements. I am praying that this will finally be happening.”
According to Péwé, MDOT had issues with phrasing in the college-focused city greeting. Labeling the city as historic opened up a multitude of regulatory measures, such as researching the historic points of the town.
MDOT also considered “Home of Hillsdale College” an advertisement for a point of interest in the town. According to MDOT, that would require arrows directing travelers to campus and more changes in the design.
“We would have had them up already if it weren’t for MDOT,” Péwé said. “But the city has been in favor of it the whole time. We thought if the college could help them fund it, it would have expedited the issue. Apparently not.”
After several rounds of redesigns, MDOT finally signed off on the original choice last week, but they were not the only ones offering criticism for the signs.
Hillsdale residents are divided on the new design, with some saying they will miss the old slogan and think the college is taking too much ownership in the city. Others believe it is time for the aged signs to be replaced and that a connection with the college is positive.
“I’m glad to see the city taking the necessary steps to replace the current signs, which are in bad shape,” Hillsdale resident Samuel Fry said. “And with the college donating the signs, it’s a win-win scenario for the taxpayers.”
Others disagree. As for Hillsdale resident Penny Swan, she said she views the design as a disservice to the town and pushes the city’s legacy aside to market the college.
“I think it is awesome that they are offering to pay for new signs for the city, but I think they should also have something about our town on them,” Swan said. “I do have a huge issue with the college being the only thing on the signs. It’s an overreach. Hillsdale is more than the college.”
Péwé believes the signs aren’t stepping on the city. He said he sees it as a symbol of the college’s appreciation for the city and a recognition of its future relationship.
“If we do great things as a school then there are benefits for the town,” Péwé said. “But at the same time, we want the community to know that we care a lot about the city and its amenities. There is a lot of pride, and we’ve come a long way together. These signs will be a product of our relationship.”
The college and the city have submitted the finalized, MDOT-approved design to LetterGraphics, the sign manufacturer.
Additionally, the city is footing the bill for another sign on Arch Street, which will point to the Hillsdale Manufacturing Complex. The Arch Street sign will be part of a new waypoint system throughout the city, with all signs bearing a similar, uniform design.
According to Beeker, once they are constructed, the signs will greet travelers down M‑99 as early as the first week of September.