TAMPA — The sign was metal. It hung over the highway. Its message was spelled out in white letters over a black background: "Welcome to Tampa International Airport."
But back when Joe Lopano applied for the airport's top job in 2010, he didn't feel welcomed.
"My impression was that this is nothing but a roadway sign that tells you where you are," said Lopano, now the airport CEO. "But it doesn't welcome you."
That's why Tampa International is spending up to $662,000 to erect a grand new sign in the grass median at the entrance of the George J. Bean Parkway.
The new sign will be imposing, made of concrete and translucent polycarbonate. It will stand 21 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It will be lit at night and be able to change colors on command.
It will be built to withstand not just the rigors of Florida's thundershowers and the occasional hurricane, but an even harsher foe: the sun's UV rays.
Lopano believes that the new sign, set for completion around the middle of this month, will raise the airport's profile and better reflect its role as an economic engine in the Tampa Bay area.
The current entrance sign overlooking the main road, he said, just doesn't do that for him.
"It doesn't portray an image of the community or the airport," Lopano said. "I've never seen an airport that doesn't have some form of a welcome feature that's a little bit more stylish than a welcome sign."
The airport has invested quite a bit of thought and money into making the new "welcome feature" a sturdy, eye-catching icon that fits with the 1970s-era, concrete-heavy design of the airport.
The new sign will also be the first visible change at an airport about to undergo $1 billion in construction starting this year.
So the new sign has to link the airport's past and future together, be dynamic enough to capture the attention of visitors, and robust enough to endure decades of Florida weather.
"I tell people when we put something in the airport as a new feature that we want it to look good on day one and look good on year 20," said Al Illustrato, the airport's vice president of facilities and administration.
The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority's governing board, which oversees the airport, voted unanimously for the project in September.
The sign was designed by the Tampa firm RS&H, Inc., as part of its retainer as the airport's consulting engineer. The construction contract was awarded to Foresight Construction Group of Gainesville and Tampa for $631,000. The $662,000 price tag includes possible cost overruns, but officials said the project appears to be on-budget.
Other airports across the country have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on welcome signs. Charlotte Douglas International Airport spent around $400,000 to build a 60-foot tall sculpture of steel and glass.
Jacksonville International Airport spent about $600,000 total to buy a 13-foot bronze statute called Hoy es Hoy and install it in front of a granite waterfall.
But perhaps the most impressive — and expensive — airport sign in the world is the famous 32-foot lighted "LAX" sign outside Los Angeles International Airport. The airport entrance is also lit by a series of multi-colored glass pylons leading to a circle of 100-foot colored towers. The project cost $15 million and an upgrade to LED lighting cost another $2.5 million.
Locally, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport unveiled a new brand and two new lighted road monuments along Roosevelt Boulevard last year. The signs were 20 feet high and 14 feet wide, and the total cost of the project was $70,000.