Should taxpayers put tens of thousands of dollars into redesigning John Wayne Airport’s logo, so travelers are more likely to buy merchandise featuring it?

Or does the current logo work just fine?

County officials this week hashed out in public whether it makes sense to spend time and money into rebranding the county-owned airport that serves about a million passengers per month.

Supervisors ultimately voted 4-1 on Tuesday to approve the expense, after supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Katrina Foley asked their colleagues to award $50,000 in taxpayer money to the private Laguna College of Art and Design for students to propose a new logo.

Bartlett said previous efforts to develop a logo had failed. 

“No one likes” a proposed origami-syle logo put forward by a design firm commissioned by the airport’s previous director, Bartlett said at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.

OC Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, at a Sept. 13, 2022 public meeting, holds up an origami-style John Wayne Airport logo proposal that was roundly rejected by county supervisors. Credit: County of Orange meeting video

That logo proposal was part of a rebranding effort that cost $135,000 – including $75,250 for focus groups and “research” and $45,750 for “Brand Pillars and Logo Exploration” – according to figures airport staff provided in response to a request from Voice of OC.

The origami logo – which was funded by ticket fees – has now been completely scrapped.

“It was not well received,” said airport director, Charlene Reynolds, who started in June and works under the elected Board of Supervisors.

Yet the new $50,000 art school proposal – which will be funded by taxpayers rather than ticket fees – drew hard questions from Supervisor Don Wagner.

Wagner argued the current logo is just fine, adding that no information had been provided to supervisors about what it would cost to physically replace the airport’s existing logos, some of which are set in concrete.

“How much is all of that going to cost?” Wagner asked.

“Nobody has come to this board and said, ‘We need to do a rebrand,’ ” he said, calling the proposal “a gift to Laguna College of Art and Design.”

Wagner added he “can’t support throwing 50 grand at Laguna College of Art and Design for tablets, projectors, screens, immersive and…experiential technology under the guise of rebranding something that I’m told doesn’t need to be rebranded.”

Bartlett argued back that it’s time to update the airport logo so people would want to buy merchandise that features it.

“I think we need to rebrand the airport,” Bartlett said.

“I had asked the airport, why didn’t we have any type of branding and merchandising. And they said, ‘Well we can’t really put our old logo on t-shirts and ball caps, Because it’s so antiquated, no one’s going to buy them,’ ” Bartlett said.

“Things have to be updated from time to time,” she added, calling her proposal “very cost effective.”

Foley, who is running to replace Bartlett in November’s election in a district that includes the airport, said “it’s the perfect timing” to update the airport logo, noting overhauls underway of the airport’s shopping and dining areas.

The airport director said physical signage with the current logos largely would be updated only when it needs to be replaced because it’s old.

And to pay for new signs, Reynolds suggested finding corporate sponsors who would get to put their branding next to the airport’s name.

“They have their [corporate] logo. And it would be a sign, and then at the bottom there would be, kind of, ‘Sponsored by Mercedes Benz,’ or ‘Sponsored by Rolex,’ ” Reynolds told supervisors, adding the new signs could be digital so it’s easy to update logos.

“If this body would be interested in that, that’s an opportunity to have it paid for by a corporate sponsor, if so willing.”

Wagner wasn’t impressed, saying the airport director didn’t mention the logo issue at all in meetings leading up to Tuesday’s discussion.

“I will express my disappointment that none of that was told by you or your staff to mine when this question was asked,” Wagner told Reynolds.

“And you and I had a meeting a month ago, and you never once brought this issue up.” 

Wagner pointed to cost estimates of 6 or 7 figures from airport staff to replace the logo, despite there being “no studies whatsoever telling us that this needs to be done.”

“And no groundwork – as usually is done on items like this, by staff either at the airport or at the county, with this item that suddenly hits us” as a last-minute agenda item on the Friday before the meeting,” he added.

Reynolds didn’t respond to those critiques from Wagner, who suggested the logo change could be part of an effort to rename the airport altogether.

In summer 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd, the county faced calls from local professors and the OC Democratic Party to rename the airport, citing comments by John Wayne that he “believe[s] in white supremacy.”

Those calls got no traction among county supervisors.

The logo change could very well open the door to another name change effort, warned Wagner, a Republican who opposed changing the name in 2020.

“I worry that it reignites the issue of just the name of the airport, and might well be an effort to move away from that,” Wagner said.

Foley said he’s completely wrong about that.

“Supervisor Bartlett and I, and the airport staff, in talking about this – no one has ever brought up changing the name of the airport. I have never heard that once in our discussions,” Foley said.

“So that is just something that Supervisor Wagner is making up here.”

Yet Wagner says he’s simply connecting the dots.

“The effort was to take down the statute and change the name. I have heard nothing in three years, and my staff even longer, about a brand problem or need to rebrand. The only context for this sudden proposed change is that prior renaming effort,” Wagner said in a text message to Voice of OC.

“I think this is explicable only as ‘first step’ – Bartlett’s phrase – in a process where the last step might well be a rename to go along with the rebrand. There is no other real sense to doing this that has even been explained before to the board.”

Ultimately, supervisors voted 4-to-1 – with Wagner opposing – to approve the $50,000 for the art school students to propose a new logo for the airport.

The art school said the project will provide students with valuable real-life learning experience.

“The students’ energy, enthusiasm, and unique skills, combined with our faculty’s expertise, will lead to a professional and successful outcome for JWA that will not only represent the airport in a positive and sustainable light, but we hope will also proudly showcase Orange County,” said Laguna College of Art and Design in a statement to Voice of OC.”

At the county supervisors meeting, there was no discussion of whether the students themselves would receive any of those funds.

Asked about this, the school said: “The entire program was designed to benefit the students in all ways, including through awards.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

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