The sign above graces the entrance to downtown Portland from the Burnside Bridge. It’s a nice sign. I like it. Does that make it mine?
I don’t think so, but many of my fellow Oregonians do. The owners of the sign have asked the Portland Historic Landmark Commission for permission to change its text. Citizens are protesting the alteration; nearly 10,000 of them have joined a Facebook group dedicated to opposing it. Pat Mobley, writing at Blue Oregon, argues that the sign “transcended simple advertisement status long ago” — apparently a good enough reason for denying its owners the right to put it to profitable use. City officials have put forth an even stranger justification: “The loss of the quirky, historic upper-case ‘E’ and cut-off ‘g’ in the text are not in keeping with the landmark character of the sign,” they write in a staff recommendation.
The facts are straightforward:
— The sign with Oregon outline was built in 1940 and advertised White Satin Sugar.
— In 1959 it was switched to an ad for White Stag sportswear, adding the iconic white stag.
— In 1997 it was changed again to promote Made in Oregon stores, a retailer that sells Oregon products.
— Made in Oregon no longer has any ownership of or presence in the building that hosts the sign. Nor does it pay for the electricity used to light it.
— With the exception of holidays, the sign went dark from 1989 to 1996 because no one was paying for it, and it may do so again.
— The University of Oregon now has a presence in the building and has paid for major renovations. They’ve offered to purchase the sign from its current owner, Ramsey Signs, and to keep it lit, under the condition that they are allowed to change it to read “University of Oregon.”
Perhaps I cling to quaint notions of property rights or maybe I just dislike the idea of text that’s younger than me being declared a historic landmark, but that strikes me as a perfectly reasonable transaction. And if the people of Portland feel strongly otherwise, they don’t have to resort to seizing the sign without compensating its owners. They or their proxies at City Hall could offer a competing bid to keep the sign intact. I suspect they’d realize they don’t actually care all that much about the sign if preserving it required making a donation or spending tax money rather than simply joining a feel-good Facebook group.
Unfortunately, given the realities of historic landmark laws, feeling good is practically cost-free. As Robert Levy and William Mellor describe regulatory takings in their book The Dirty Dozen:
If property is taken for public use, it makes sense — both morally and economically — to spread the cost of obtaining the property over the entire public. […]
The allocation of these costs also has political implications. If the government is required to pay for the benefits it seeks to provide, taxpaying voters can weigh the costs they incur against the benefits they receive. Legislators will then have an electoral incentive to engage in takings only when the net benefit to society exceeds the net cost. Voters who must bear the additional cost will punish legislators who abuse such takings.
In contrast, if legislators are free to enrich a large group of voters at the expense of a single property owner or a small group of owners, it is in their electoral best interest to do so. Voters can be expected to accept and even demand any benefit, no matter how insignificant, if it costs them nothing to obtain it.
I have a slight preference for the sign reading “Made in Oregon” rather than “University of Oregon.” I have a strong preference for seeing property rights respected. I hope the change goes through.
[Photo from the Flickr stream of Drewish.]