Two old bridge piers greet motorists coming into Manhattan on K-177. The piers, relics of the old Kansas River Bridge, have sat untouched for more than a decade, while city and county officials decide what to do with them. Bart Thomas, of Thomas Outdoor Advertising, aims to change that.
Recently Thomas came to Mayor Jim Sherow with a proposal to erect an aluminum sign that says “Welcome to Manhattan” on the east pier. The west pier would remain untouched. The sign would have a distinctive art deco design and font with repeating lines and edges to match the style of the piers. Art deco is a style of architecture popular in the 1920s and 1930s that is rarely seen anymore.
“Thomas has come up with a pretty good idea and pretty good proposition,” Sherow said.
The sign would also have an LED display similar to many bank signs, which would advertise community events. The sign would be 12 feet tall and 35 feet long, and the LED display would be 3 feet tall and 23 feet long.
“It would be such a cool device for people coming into the community,” Thomas said.
Thomas believes the LED display could help raise awareness for community events, which would be a benefit for residents. He added that LEDs are practically “zero maintenance” and cost-efficient to run and said structural changes to the pier are unnecessary to support the sign.
“It’s a go,” Thomas said.
Although Sherow said the city might want to do a structural analysis of the piers to be sure.
Thomas advocates use of the piers as keeping an aspect of the community’s history alive. He said few communities are holding on to their heritages.
“These bridges represent history,” Thomas said.
It’s not the first time someone has proposed a pier project. In fact, it’s not even the first time a member of the Thomas family has made such a proposal. Jason Hilgers, assistant city manager, said there’s more than a decade of history of discussions about what to do with the piers.
When the new Kansas River Bridge was built in the mid-1990s, the two old piers were scheduled for demolition. But Blaine Thomas, of Thomas Sign Co., asked the city and county to conserve the piers because of their distinctive design and historical value, a sentiment his son echoes.
“I think it’s cool that we saved them,” Bart Thomas said. “We’re starting to lose everything.”
Over the years, there have been several movements to come up with a use - usually involving a piece of art or sign - for the piers. None have been successful. Concerns over costs associated with the proposals have been obstacles.
The winning design from a 2006 community contest was estimated to cost between $85,000 and $92,000. One other proposal from Stan Herd, a well-known crop artist out of Lawrence, cost between $300,000 and $350,000.
“Neither the city nor county wanted to spend that much,” Ron Meredith, assistant director of Riley County Public Works, said in 2007.
In 2002, Sylvia Beeman, a local artist, proposed a community art project atop both the piers. Beeman’s proposal aimed to depict the history of the Kansas River. It would have included images of native tribes and the Hartford steamboat.
Her proposal called for half-inch thick stainless steel plates with waterjet cutouts. However, the project’s cost was nearly $300,000, something that again didn’t sit well with county and city commissioners.
“I don’t want to see any taxpayers’ money used to place artwork (on the piers),” County Commissioner Alvan Johnson said at the time. “We have fundamental, more basic needs (and) we have to address those first.”
In 2005, there were talks of restoring or, alternatively, tearing down the piers. But both options cost more than the city and county were willing to spend.
Leon Hobson, director of Riley County Public Works, said restoring the piers would cost $49,184. That would include clearing the perimeter around the piers, removing loose concrete and visible wire, taking care of rust and filling cracks with epoxy and repairing other damage. The price tag to tear down the piers was estimated at the time at $38,000.
Thomas is sensitive to the funding issue. He said the preliminary plan is to offset part of the expense by selling space to non-profit and community organizations on the LED display to advertise community events.
“Our intentions on this are not to have it be a (commercial) advertising display but have it be a community awareness display,” Thomas said. He said the restoration that had posed a financial problem in previous years would not be necessary with the current plan.
The issue is where the initial funds would come from. Sherow said he discussed a couple options with Thomas including: Thomas paying completely out-of-pocket in exchange for advertising rights or paying for half the cost with the Chamber of Commerce paying for the other half through fund-raising efforts. Thomas said that would have to be worked out during the next intergovernmental meeting between the city and county on Sept. 18.
At the outset, city commissioners have been generally favorable to the proposal as long as the city is not responsible for funding. Commissioner Rich Jankovich said there’s something unique about the piers that the city could capitalize on. Jankovich said Thomas’ sign could be a “neat centerpiece” on the road into town.
“Something needs to be done,” Jankovich said.
Commissioner Wynn Butler has initially expressed support for the proposal, saying the LED display would be a great way to publicize things such as road closings, routes to football games and even a warning about the cell phone ordinance.
“I like the concept, (but) of course do not want to see funding be from the taxpayers unless we can turn a profit in actual dollars within a year or so of investment,” Butler wrote in an email to the Mercury.
Sherow has also been supportive of the proposal, but he’s not getting ahead of himself.
“We’ve had some good ideas in the past and nothing came of them,” Sherow said. “We’ll see if this idea has some traction.”
Thomas just hopes he can help save a piece of Manhattan’s history. On the possibility of his proposal going forward, Thomas said, “I think it should be kind of a celebration.”