Sign standoff

Seven sepia-colored panels on a brick building at the corner of Broadway and Higgins illustrate scenes from Missoula history. Men in white shirts swing sledgehammers. With bent backs, they extend a railroad line, tie-by-tie, farther west. A horse-drawn carriage meanders downtown. This Hadley Ferguson mural, called "The Heart of Missoula," has been at the center of a debate over the past two months on how to balance the needs of commerce with the value of art.

In 2005, the city signed off on a perpetual easement with the Cowell estate, which holds title to the building that bears the mural, and Rick Bice, a Cowell Building tenant who owns Allegra Print and Imaging. According to the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, Bice picked up roughly half the mural's $35,000 price, while the MRA contributed the other half. Bice and the property owner assured the city that the art would remain in perpetuity.

Last year, Bice opened another business, Signs Now, in the building. Two months ago, hoping to draw more foot traffic, he submitted an application to the Office of Planning and Grants proposing a 43-square-foot sign above the Signs Now Broadway Street entrance.

The city's Public Art Committee, however, bristled at Bice's plan to hang the sign smack in the middle of the mural. In a letter to Bice dated July 1, art committee chair Joan Jonkel wrote, "Your suggested 'Signs Now' signage compromises the brown wall that is considered the necessary visual frame of the artwork and this usage of it cannot be approved by the Public Art Committee."

Bice says the easement doesn't specify anything about signs and the committee's stance doesn't take into account the trying economic environment downtown business owners face. "I care very much about the art, and I appreciate how it has enhanced the downtown," he says. "But I also care deeply about trying to make a living and support nine employees."

By Tuesday of this week, Bice capitulated. He's agreed to erect his sign 90 feet from the business entryway, away from the "Heart of Missoula." That doesn't mean he's happy about it. "I don't have the funds, or the time, or the energy right now to fight," he says.

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