Picture, if you will, a young family about to embark on a summer vacation; an excited father facing his eager children, about to reveal their destination.
“Kids, we’re not going to Disney World this year,” he says. “We’re going to visit the hometown of Kansas’ 17th governor!”
They set out on their quest, and they find it easily because big, bright blue signs on US-56 proclaim Marion to be that hometown.
It’s also hard to imagine a thousand people in one month choosing Pilsen as their destination, but it happened last year for the Father Emil Kapaun museum, volunteer Harriet Bina said.
But there’s no big, blue highway sign for the growing tourist destination. There’s no brown highway sign. There’s no sign at all for the museum, and only two small signs pointing the way to Pilsen, which Bina said potential visitors frequently don’t see.
“We need to do something,” Bina said. “People cannot find us.”
But blue signs and brown signs appear to be out of the question until the museum is open 30 hours a week, instead of by appointment.
Two weeks ago, the Marion County Record decided to find out why a ball of twine and odd-shaped rocks can get highway signs, but a candidate for sainthood and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient cannot.
We discovered that the place to get tourism sign information wasn’t from the department that controls Kansas highways.
Rather, it was from the department that decides when people can and cannot spear frogs and trap beavers.
In 2011 Gov. Sam Brownback decided that tourism fit best with things you can shoot, trap, and snag, so “Tourism” was tacked onto the Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Hunting through the KDWPT website, we hooked onto a 27-page “Tourism Signage Application Kit” that described tourism sign programs.
While KDWPT receives and reviews applications, it doesn’t approve them.
Blue “tourist oriented directional signs” are managed by a private company, Kansas Logos Inc., which collects annual fees for having a sign. Applications are sent to KDOT and Kansas Logos for approval.
Brown “supplemental guide signs” applications go to KDWPT, but KDOT and, for some attractions, Kansas Historical Society, approve them. KDOT pays for the sign if they have money to do so; otherwise, the attraction can pay.
Either way, the Kapaun museum is out of luck because it isn’t open at least six hours a day, five days a week, as spelled out in the rules.
Herington native Pete Szabo, who oversees the application process, said he has been to midnight Mass in Pilsen and knows of Father Kapaun. He was sympathetic but said the rule can’t be waived.
“Right now I don’t think I could get them a sign, either a blue or a brown one,” Szabo said. “The hours are the thing that would really trip them up.”
Szabo said it would still be worth checking with KDOT about a brown sign.
The KDOT website said Kansas Historical Society first had to approve a museum’s historical significance, after which KDOT should be contacted about the sign.
We called the historical society, and a representative said no, the request for a ruling had to come from KDOT.
“The application and the process does not start with us,” he said.
State traffic signage engineer Eric Nichol put the ball back with KDWPT.
“The application would go through them before it would come to me,” he said.
Nichol also said he believed a sign qualification chart in the application packet was incorrect.
As state tourism signs weren’t an option, Nichol suggested the Kapaun museum consider paying for a billboard erected on private property.
Signs of hope
Bina said museum volunteers have discussed putting up a sign of their own.
“We had talked to the Knights of Columbus, and they might get a sign together,” she said. “They have talked about having one done that would be on someone’s ground. The biggest problem was just finances.”
Signs have their own 20-page section in county zoning regulations. They list 22 functional kinds of signs and 11 structural configurations for them, with detailed specifications for each, as well as the approval process.
However, if the museum can come up with the money, county planning and zoning director Tonya Richards said, a sign would stand a good chance of being approved.
Cutting through 20 pages of county sign regulations, Roberts said that while many signs are restricted to a size of 2 feet by 4 feet, conditional use permits have been granted for signs that are 32 square feet, the size of a standard sheet of plywood. A proposed design and a written agreement with a landowner would be included in the application, she said.
Bina was pleased to learn the museum could move ahead with the billboard idea. She expects museum visitation to keep growing.
“If Father Kapaun is named a martyr, if he is named blessed, things are going to happen really quick in Pilsen,” she said. “A bishop told us at a meeting you will not recognize Pilsen.”
Meanwhile, blue signs aren’t completely out of the picture.
State Sen. Rick Wilborn of McPherson said he would call both KDOT and KDWPT to learn more about the regulations. If the rules “can’t be bent,” Wilborn said, he would consider introducing legislation to change them.