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WATCH NOW: Le Mars, Iowa, adds large lighted welcome sign

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Contractors work to install a large welcome sign over Central Avenue in downtown Le Mars, Iowa, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. The sign, created by M. Catton & Company of Le Mars, and provided by Mike and Cheryl Wells is about 80-feet wide and over 20-feet high.

LE MARS, Iowa – Anxious for a getaway after months of being homebound during the pandemic, Mike and Cheryl Wells embarked on a cross country trip in the fall of 2020.

From their home in Le Mars, the couple traveled in a motor home over 4,100 miles in 21 days through several western states. Their journey took them through Hillcrest, California, where they marveled at a large red neon sign with the city’s name in large letters. A prominent landmark, the sign was a gift to the community from a group of neighborhood merchants in 1940.

Later in their trip, they viewed another big illuminated sign as they entered Williams, Arizona, near the southern entrance to the Grand Canyon. That sign, bearing the city’s name, extends over the iconic Route 66.

“We came away from the experience thinking, 'Wouldn’t it be cool to have a combination lighted sign with (Le Mars’) name over a street downtown?' ” Mike Wells recalled Thursday. “We came back and started dreaming with the architects and the engineers.”

Nearly a year later, that dream is about to become a reality. This week, crews have been installing a giant welcome sign at the entrance to downtown Le Mars. The 80-foot-wide by 20-foot tall steel sign extends over Central Avenue, between 1st Street NE and Plymouth Street.

Mike and Cheryl Wells donated the structure to help welcome and attract even more visitors to Le Mars, the Plymouth County seat of about 10,000.

“We love our community,” Mike Wells said. “We wanted to create another unique way to differentiate Le Mars and create a landmark people would identify with.”

Wells heads Wells Enterprises, the Le Mars-based family-run ice cream manufacturer that employs over 2,500 people, making it the largest employer by far in the Plymouth County seat. 

Over 20,000 visitors per year stop at the Wells Visitor Center & Ice Cream Parlor, which is downtown at 115 Central Ave NW.  

Wells said the new welcome sign has the potential to help draw even more traffic to the downtown business district. The sign is not far from the intersection with Route 3, which carries 10,000 vehicles per day. 

The steel arched sign, which weighs over 20,000, will bear the words, “Ice Cream Capital of the World,” in white letters over a blue background. A sculpted plastic sundae, with vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and a cherry on top, will bear the word “Le Mars” in red letters, and “Est. 1869” in black letters on the dish.

Both the sign and sundae will be illuminated, visible to northbound and southbound traffic.

Beneath the sign will be a 40-foot wide by 46-foot tall, double-sided banner that will promote seasonal community events. The first is “The Joy of Christmas in Hometown Le Mars,” set for Nov. 27, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The installation of the welcome center required temporarily shutting down Central Avenue, a major thoroughfare downtown. Wells said he and his wife met with local businesses ahead of time to give them a heads up about the plans.

"The downtown merchants were super supportive," he said.

Local contractors were lined up for the installation, which started Monday. The sign was created by Mark Catton, who heads M. Catton & Co., a Le Mars-based firm that does work for museums, science centers and other clients around the country.

Other contractors on the project include: Interstate Metal Specialists, steel fabrication; Thompson Electric, electrical; Maurer Sign & Design, internally lighted sculpture and channel lights fabrication; Schlotfeldt Engineering, site plan and elevation drawings; and Timmins Construction, crane operator.

While the work was originally estimated to be finished by Friday, wet weather this week has pushed back completion to early next week, most likely Tuesday, Wells said.

"We're a little behind but we'll get the street open for the weekend," he said.

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