Heading east over the Hernando De Soto Bridge, the Memphis welcome sign is one of the first sights drivers notice.
Tourists and passersby are reminded of what put Memphis on the map when they read the neon letters spelling out "Memphis: Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll." But within the next year, that sign will be coming down, along with the building it is affixed to.
With the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid deal coming to fruition on the riverfront, the city is giving the outdoor retailer a clean slate to work with, so the old Lonestar Industries concrete company, where the sign is currently posted, is moving.
As it turns out, removing the old sign and starting anew might not be such a bad thing.
The sign went up in 1999 as part of then-Shelby County mayor Jim Rout's "Millennium Projects." According to Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), the technology available at that time involved using basic hot-gas neon, a less efficient and less reliable set-up than is available today.
"What we found out not too long after the signs went up is that when birds or certain things come in contact with any of those letters, it would burn them out," Kane said. "We ran into an issue where the letters were burning out on a pretty regular basis. We'd send somebody up there to fix the 'M' or the 'P.' There were times when the poor repairman would no sooner get down than a bird would hit another letter, and he'd have to be out there the next day to fix it."
Repairing the letters is no small task. Because of the sign's location, near the river and about 15 stories high, keeping the neon sign in working order was a constant annoyance, Kane said.
Now, Kane hopes to use this opportunity to put up a new sign, one more in line with current technology, on the outside of the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
"A decade later, the technology is different. We could do this in a more efficient way so that we don't have letters burning out," Kane said. "I think much worse than not having a Memphis sign is having a sign that says, 'Welcome to 'emphis.'"
The location and type of sign aren't set in stone yet. Placing the sign on the west side of the Cook Convention Center is currently the most obvious option. But while it would be visible to drivers crossing the bridge from Arkansas, the sign would be obscured from drivers to the east of the river and in the downtown area.
As for the type of sign, Kane said the CVB is exploring its options. One idea they've been toying with is an LED screen, where advertisements for local attractions could share equal billing with a welcome message.
"We could have a multitude of messages," Kane said. "We'd be able to promote things like the zoo and Graceland and other amenities of the city. Then every seven seconds, the sign would flash 'Welcome to Memphis: Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll' or 'Welcome to Memphis: America's Aerotropolis.'"
The original sign cost around $150,000, funded primarily by Shelby County, the CVB, and Lonestar. Kane couldn't speculate as to the cost of a replacement sign but suggested the funding could come from advertising, government grants, and sponsorships.
"The Welcome to Memphis sign has become an iconic symbol as you enter downtown Memphis, especially at night," Kane said. "Clearly, it has served a great purpose. However, with the maintenance issues, it may be a good time to go in a different direction."