Made in Oregon, stolen by Portland

The saga of Portland’s “historic” Made in Oregon sign is finally at an end. City Commissioner Randy Leonard announced today on his blog:

The sign formerly known as the “White Satin Sugar” sign, the “White Stag” sign, and the “Made in Oregon” sign, is soon to come under the ownership of the City of Portland through a generous donation being made by Ramsay Signs. Before the City takes ownership of the sign, it will be converted to read “Portland Oregon” in the styling of its predecessors, as shown below:

portland_or2

This is a “generous donation” in the same way that protection money paid to the Mafia is money spent on “security services.” If you’ll recall, Ramsay Signs, who owns the neon giant, was no longer being paid by the Made in Oregon chain store advertised in the current design. Ramsay found a willing buyer in the Eugene-based University of Oregon, whose Portland campus lies beneath the sign. The university understandably wanted to change the text to promote the school in exchange for lighting it, all while keeping the basic design intact.

Randy Leonard and the Portland Historic Landmark Commission stepped in to stop the deal, claiming that the current text, which was only changed in 1997 and previously hawked sugar and sports apparel, suddenly qualified as a historic landmark. Specifically the Commission wrote that “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,” two typographical oddities this Portlander confesses not to have noticed until they took on such importance despite crossing the Burnside Bridge at least a couple times a week. Connoisseurs of font will presumably be happy to see that the new design retains these quirky letters.

Thus the sign was only “generously donated” to the city after the city violated Ramsay’s property rights by blocking its sale and making it worthless to any private buyer. This is eminent domain by other means. The city gets the sign and Randy Leonard gets the credit. And who will pay to light the sign? The new owners, i.e. us:

The maintenance of the sign, electricity, and the costs of conversion to read “Portland Oregon” will be paid for with revenues from a newly established City-owned parking lot under the Burnside Bridge.

So instead of using these parking funds for city services we’re using them to light a sign that the U of O would have lit for free. Brilliant.

Hat tip to Patrick Emerson, a.k.a. the Oregon Economist. Patrick supports the taking and thanks Leonard specifically, which can be read either as evidence that the sign really is a legitimate public good or that even savvy economists sometimes let their own preferences trump respect for property rights.

Update: Complete details of the deal here.

Update 3/26/10: Patrick has updated to say that he meant his “Thanks Randy” comment to be taken ironically and that he concerns about city ownership of the sign.

“Nice sign ya got there…

… be a real shame if something was ta happen to it.” That, in essence, is what City Commissioner Randy Leonard is saying to the University of Oregon, which wants to change the text on the White Stag sign it currently leases and pays to operate:

Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Nick Fish have co-sponsored an ordinance Leonard introduced late Thursday for City Council discussion next week that would, in essence, take the sign. The city would pay fair market value for the sign, estimated at $500,000. Other costs include maintenance and a lease on the rooftop space.

City ownership would ensure control over what has become a “national signature” for the city and state and part of the cultural fabric of Portland, Leonard said. It’s visible to Interstate 5 travelers and to millions who watch nationally televised Blazer games and other events.

It’s an admittedly aggressive move, but is a last resort, Leonard said. City Attorney Linda Meng said the use of eminent domain is warranted if the taking serves a public purpose.

“It’s not your ordinary condemnation, but the ordinance does a good job explaining what the public purpose is,” she said.

It’s amazing how such thuggish behavior becomes praiseworthy when it’s done by politicians, isn’t it?

My case for allowing the sign to change is here.