In Mower County, beautification is in the eye of the beholder.
A colorful mural that volunteers painted over a mess of bridge graffiti is about to be painted over itself.
To the community activists who donated their time and energy to the project, it was a way to give back to their town, deter vandals and brighten up the underpass beneath the historic Roosevelt Bridge. To Austin officials, however, the new paint job — a multicolored sunburst — wasn't much of an improvement over the spray paint scrawl it replaced.
"This group attempted to do something good for the community, and it ran afoul of what we consider a historic structure," said Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson. "We want to keep the bridge in its original form. Artwork, no matter how pretty, is not part of that."
The county just spent $2.7 million to restore the 80-year-old stone arch bridge, only to have it tagged repeatedly with gang graffiti and spray-painted obscenities. The county whitewashed over the mess, only to see the taggers return. When the community group Vision 2020approached Oscarson's office about painting over the graffiti again, he thought they meant to scrub it clean or paint the underpass white again.
Vision 2020 had something a little more colorful in mind.
Using volunteer labor and cans of donated paint, the group began work on a colorful mural — a bright orange sun shooting rays of pink, orange, yellow, blue and green across a wall that arched beside a riverside bike path.
The paint wasn't even dry on the still-unfinished mural when the complaints began.
"I didn't anticipate the kamikaze look," Mower County Engineer Mike Hanson told the Rochester Post-Bulletin. "I don't know if it was meant to scare the gangs; it sure scared me."
Laura Helle, head of Vision 2020, wishes critics would hold their fire until the mural is finished. The group is dedicated to building community pride and beautifying eyesores like graffiti-covered walls. Most of the reactions they've gotten to the Roosevelt Bridge mural have been positive — an online poll by the Austin Daily Herald showed 63 percent support from residents who liked the sunburst and wanted to keep it.
"The public response has very much been in favor of the project," Helle said. Nevertheless, if the county decides to paint over their artwork, "it will still look better than the graffiti did [and] there really are lots of other places that we can work and put up murals. We intend to keep going."
On Wednesday, the county commissioners decided the art had to go. The commissioners instructed the county engineer to paint over or scrub off the mural and underlying graffiti and apply a graffiti-resistant coating to the underpass. They sent Vision 2020 a note of thanks, but no thanks.
"We thanked them for their efforts and said that was, at best, a miscommunication between county staff and their group," Hanson said. "We apologized for that miscommunication, however, we want to keep it historic. We don't believe there should be any artwork on that bridge."
The controversy hasn't discouraged the Vision 2020 volunteers. In fact, Helle said, they've gotten even more calls from interested volunteers.
"Community work is messy. It's a lot of failing forward," she said with a laugh. "We've had more people come forward and say they want to be involved, which really makes me feel great."