Don't Call it a Donation 

Winners and Losers in the Made in Oregon Sign Deal

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EXPECT A LOT of back-slapping later this month when Portland City Council finally inks the deal that delivers the iconic Made in Oregon sign—laying to rest more than year of uncertainty and controversy over a neon billboard that has staked an outsized claim to the affections of Portlanders young and old.

And few might seem as happy as the sign's current owner, Darryl Paulsen. Paulsen not only unloaded a sign whose value had plummeted after City Commissioner Randy Leonard threatened to seize it outright last year, but also managed to feather his retirement nest in the process.

As part of his conditions for "donating" the sign—soon to read "Portland, Oregon"—the city agreed to pay his former company, Ramsay Signs, $2,000 a month for the next 10 years (that's $240,000!) for a service contract to keep the sign lit up and looking sharp.

He'll get a tax write-off, plus unspecified considerations from Ramsay Signs in return.

"We're very happy with that, at this point in time," says Paulsen. "It'll work out best for the citizens of Portland."

City commissioners, looking to close a deal first outlined in March, are also looking pretty pleased. The long-darkened sign should be shining again by Thanksgiving, keeping alive a long holiday streak. And uncertainty over who, or what, would control the sign's prominent message—a controversy that flared when the University of Oregon tried to buy the sign last year for $535,000—appears vanquished.

To make the deal pencil out, the city agreed to lease a lot beneath the Burnside Bridge, plus an unused commercial building next to it, to the developer who owns the building where the sign resides. Art DeMuro will pay the city $34,150 a year for 10 years to use that space. He'll also donate the sign's perch and pay the $200,000 it costs to change the sign's script.

"It needed closure," says DeMuro, who chairs the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission. The commission's assent was required before any changes could be planned for the sign. "It was this big banana hanging out there that needed resolution. This is a really good ending to it all."

The sign, built in 1940, was designated a city landmark in 1978. But its message has always varied. It first shilled White Satin Sugar, and then White Stag Sportswear. The latest change, to "Made in Oregon," came in 1997, amid a dispute over who should pay for the sign's lighting and maintenance.

The council's first discussion of the deal was set for Wednesday, September 15. Beyond winning ownership of promotional space, the city is hoping the deal will breathe more life into an often-moribund slice of Old Town.

"We've been able to put together a good approach that not only gets the sign under public ownership," says Ty Kovatch, chief of staff for Leonard, who led the push for the deal, "but we'll also activate an area that has attracted a lot of criminal activity over the years."

But could the city have gotten better terms?

Commercial real estate experts consulted by the Mercury said the lease deal didn't raise obvious concerns, and DeMuro called the terms "fair" in light of other considerations.

As for the sign maintenance contract, even city officials hinted it was pricier than they might have liked. When the contract expires, officials say they'll order repairs in-house or seek cheaper bids from other companies.

Dennis Meyer, founder and owner of Portland's Meyer Signs, was actually aghast. His firm, he says, maintains all the signs at Jantzen Beach for only $1,700 a month. He says the contract for the Made in Oregon sign should be about half what the city will pay.

"That's not a donation," he says. "That's just getting screwed."

Prodded about the price, Paulsen was a tad defensive. "We know what it costs to maintain the thing," he says—noting Ramsay has been the only firm to ever work on the sign.

But he might have been thinking about himself—and the dough Ramsay Signs would be sending his way—when he bargained for the higher rate. Paulsen lamented he could have made hundreds of thousands more if DeMuro and the city would have let him sell the sign to whomever he wanted.

"We got something out of nothing," he says. Otherwise, "it was 'take it down and throw it away.' And no one wanted that."

UPDATE SEPT 15: The discussion planned for the sign deal turned into a vote just before city council adjourned. Hoping to get work started as soon as possible, Commissioner Randy Leonard added an "emergency" provision to the deal, and commissioners approved it 4-0 with the expected heaping helping of happiness ["'Made in Oregon' Deal Won't Have to Wait," Blogtown, Sept 15].

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