Extreme makeover, well, quick anyway, for ‘Made in Oregon’

Old Town | The sign will soon read “Portland, Oregon” under a deal just okayed

By Tom Hallman, Jr.

The city of Portland took ownership of the iconic “Made in Oregon” sign Wednesday after city commissioners declared an emergency allowing them to approve a complicated deal among the city, the sign’s owner and the owner of the Old Town building under the sign.

The emergency? Starting work immediately so the lettering can be changed to read “Portland, Oregon” in time to light the sign at a ceremony the day after Thanksgiving.

Commissioner Randy Leonard, who has spent nearly a year on the project, asked fellow commissioners to declare the matter an emergency. Otherwise, he said, the City Council couldn’t vote until a Sept. 29 meeting — too late to get the sign ready for the celebration.

“It hasn’t been as easy as people would think,” Leonard said. “It wasn’t a matter of just giving the sign away and the city taking it.”

The neon sign, built by Ramsay Signs in 1941 to advertise White Satin Sugar, was changed over the years, becoming “Made in Oregon” in 1997. After the University of Oregon leased and renovated the building under the sign for a satellite campus, it sought in 2008 to change the sign to carry a big “O.” That idea died last year when Leonard and the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission objected.

Leonard began rounds of negotiations, at one point driving to Anacortes, Wash., to talk face to face with the sign owner Darryl Paulsen of Ramsay Signs.

Leonard said sticking points were maintenance agreements, easement issues to give the city access to the sign — and finding a way to pull off a deal without taxpayers footing the bill.

The final document — 104 pages and filled with plenty uses of “whereas” and “therefore”” — was so long that a City Hall copier broke down making copies for all involved, said Amy Ruiz, the planning and sustainability adviser for Mayor Sam Adams.

Under the agreement, Ramsay Signs will donate the sign to the city and be paid, $2,000 a month for 10 years to maintain it. Art DeMuro, who owns the building under the sign, will give the city the $200,000 needed to change the lettering. Money to maintain the sign will come from a parking lot and commercial space under the Burnside Bridge that DeMuro will lease from the city.

Before the vote, Adams said residents have asked him why it’s taken so long for the city to make a deal. DeMuro told the commissioners that people continually ask him about the sign’s future, and that his kids even get questions from classmates.

“It’s nice to have it resolved,” he said.

The vote was 4-0, with Commissioner Dan Saltzman absent.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she hadn’t expected to support the plan given a tight city budget. But she did, noting the deal doesn’t burden taxpayers, takes no money from the city’s budget and protects a sign the city didn’t have the money to buy outright.

After the vote, Leonard said he’d let Fritz flip the switch the day after Thanksgiving. But Fritz, acknowledging Leonard’s efforts, said they would do it together.

And, yes, Rudolph’s nose will be red.