More painted utility boxes in River Falls coming as public art project expands

Posted March 2, 2016

Snow along Main Street has mostly melted away in downtown River Falls, making the painted utility boxes visible once again, and another round of public art is in the works.

The Utility Box Beautification Project was started by the POWERful Choices! Committee, part of River Falls Municipal Utilities. The art project was proposed to the committee by Mike Noreen after he took a trip to Menomonie, Wisconsin, with his family.

He was walking around Menomonie with his 10-year-old daughter when she pointed out a painted utility box on the roadside. His daughter asked if River Falls could do something like that.

“After that, it was kind of a family challenge,” Noreen joked.

Another important factor to launching the program was the appointment of Kevin Westhuis as the new directory of River Falls Municipal Utilities, Noreen said.

“He was really open to try new stuff,” Noreen said. “So, that gave me a lot of freedom to really work on some of these more creative ideas… We ended up able to cobble together a program.”

Noreen looked at the projects completed in Menomonie and talked to the utility director there, as well as Fort Collins, Colorado, who has a similar community arts program.

“We took these two models and figured out what would work here,” he said.

Noreen wrote up a proposal and first presented it to the POWERful Choices! Committee early last spring. Once the committee was on board, he reached out to Steve Preisler director of the non-profit River Falls Community Arts Base.

“Getting Steve on board was pretty easy,” Noreen said. “It was a pretty small town kinda deal — I just happened to know the director of the arts board, called him up on his cell phone, and we talked about it over coffee.”

The collaboration between POWERful Choices! and Community Arts Base resulted funding four artists to complete the work at $500 each, with an estimated $100 spent on paint. The artists had about one month to complete their work before River Falls Days last summer, which was the weekend of July 10-11.

Noreen said about 15 artists submitted ideas for the Utility Box Beautification Project. Four highly visible utility boxes along Main Street were chosen, and paired a design based on the location: outside the library, which required a reading theme; in front of Treasures of the Heart store, which features an image of the historic swinging bridge; another is one block from the River Falls Fire Station, a yellow, spotted box highlighting history of the Dalmatian dog mascot. The last is a blue, green and purple fish utility box, located on North Main Street across from Ace Hardware.

Despite ending up a little crunched for time, Noreen said that there weren’t many problems when it came to actually working on the utility boxes.

“There were a few things the artists had to consider: they couldn’t be too dark so they wouldn’t overheat, the vents couldn’t get covered, the keyholes and meters couldn’t get splatters on them… things like that” Noreen said.

Preisler of Community Arts Base the organization was thrilled when the city approached it with the project.

“It was easy to decide that, if we could find the right people, this project would be great for River Falls,” he said.

POWERful Choices! and Community Arts Base will collaborate on the project again this year, which will soon be underway with the warmer temperatures. Four more utility box locations have been chosen: one by the Hoffman Park baseball field, one by the North Main Kwik Trip, another by Horizon Chiropractic near Dairy Queen, and one on the University campus.

Noreen said that the campus utility box would likely be painted by a student or faculty member and the theme would have something to do with the history of UW-River Falls.

Preisler said Community Arts Base is once again looking forward to the collaboration.

“Once the deadline is up we’ll get back together and go through the whole process again,” he said. “Projects like this really add to the direction the city is working towards — to make River Falls known as an arts destination.”

The Utility Box Beautification Project has been one of the most successful projects he’s worked on, Noreen said.

Painting of a utility box on campus is being discussed between the University and the city, and will likely need approval from Assistant Chancellor for Business and Finance Elizabeth Frueh, Noreen said.

While this project is small in comparison to the work POWERful Choices! does with energy, it’s been by far the most successful in terms of citizen response, Noreen said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of comments,” he said. “All positive things. Everyone likes it, whether it’s the fish or the history aspect of the fire department design… I helped my sister paint one, and when we left for a while, there was a Post-it on the box that read ‘This is looking great! — A Stout kid.’ That was really cool to see; I took a picture of it.”

While there are no major plans for more art installations in the city yet, Noreen does see something else like this happening in the future.

“There are canvases all over, like those utility boxes. We have a pretty strong art community in this town,” he said. “You start adding a little beauty, a little history, and people ask what does that mean. I think it does a nice job presenting that side of the community.”