While driving to Charleston for the first time with the top down on a sunny day, there's nothing worse than being confused about how to get to the Holy City while marveling at the twin spires of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
Well, maybe a flat tire would be worse. Nonetheless, clear directions go a long way toward saying "Welcome" to novices trying to navigate the area, experts say.
Consider Interstate 26 eastbound, for example. Arrows point the way to Mount Pleasant, Georgetown and Savannah. But where is the sign that says "This way to Charleston"?
At the end of I-26, the choices boil down to one sign that says Meeting Street and the Visitor Center and another that steers the driver toward Savannah.
No big deal, right? Wrong, said Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The traveler should not be left to intuitively understand that Meeting Street and the Visitor Center means historic Charleston, he said.
"The only thing you know is how to get to Savannah. If I didn't know any better, I would think you didn't want people to stay in your community and spend money. You want them to go to Savannah and spend money, and that concerns me," Lawson said.
The visitors bureau commissioned an assessment of signs in the area that concluded there is much work to be done in Charleston when it comes to presenting a clear picture of how to get from point A to point B. Charleston signs are confusing, inconsistent and create visual clutter, said consultant Destination Development of Seattle.
What's needed is a so-called "Wayfinding System" throughout Charleston County that will build a sense of community and increase retail sales as people find what they are looking for, Lawson said.
In a presentation Thursday to the Charleston County Council Economic Development Committee, Lawson focused on the sign problems on I-26 east toward downtown Charleston. "Having lived here for a long time, you know how to get around and the signage is kind of secondary," he said.
That's not the case for the visitor. "If it's not consistent and very clear, it can be a real nightmare to get around," he said.
"It is important to have signs that say 'Downtown' or 'Charleston' so that people looking for downtown know they are headed in the right direction. It is also important to designate which is the preferred exit to downtown, making sure it is the most physically attractive gateway," Lawson said.
A casual survey of the area by The Post and Courier noted some other signs that might create confusion among visitors. On maps, U.S. Highway 17 as it winds through downtown is officially known as the Septima Clark Expressway. In conversation, it is often called the Crosstown. "I spent days trying to figure out what the Crosstown was," one newcomer said.
Other signs that drivers identified as needing more clarity after crossing the Ashley River Bridge include where U.S. 17 forks left toward Folly Road. There, the choices are either Folly Beach or Savannah. Actually, the driver is deciding whether to go to James, Kiawah, Seabrook, Johns, Wadmalaw islands and Folly Beach or West Ashley, Interstate 526 and Savannah.
And who from out of town could figure out the Summerville exit on the James Island connector going toward downtown Charleston?
Lawson said the visitors bureau hopes that more in-depth study of the sign issue can be done. "This is a much bigger issue than we ever thought," he told the council committee.
The committee recommended to the full council, which meets on Tuesday, that county staff identify funds for a "Wayfinding" study. Such a study would have to go back to council for approval, officials said.