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Symbol of the Future: The quest for a new Rochester flag

Rochester, like most cities, has its own flag. The problem is, even though it's been the official flag of the city since 1980, a majority of the city's residents don't even know it exists.

While most Rochesterites don't know of the flag's existence, one native has made flags like Rochester's his life.

"Flags are kind of like the glue that holds a group together," said Rochester resident Lee Herold.

Herold's flag shop contains more Rochester flags than anywhere else in the city. He is more familiar with the flag than nearly anyone in Minnesota, and says it's time for the flag to move into the future.

"When you put lettering on it, it tells you that our symbols don't tell you what it means. That's really the first clue that it's not working well."

Rochester's flag consists of three main elements: the name of the city in the font of local giant IBM, A cityscape showing two of the Med City's landmarks–the Mayo Building and the Plummer Building–and three geese representing the geese of Silver Lake.

"The simplest way to fix this would be to turn the geese around, make them big, and put the skyline down at the bottom," said Herold. "That, and take the letters off."

All three symbols are possibly out of date; IBM no longer uses the font, the Gonda Building has joined Plummer and Mayo on Rochester's skyline, and the geese don't flock to Silver Lake like they used to. Because of that, Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede has discussed giving the flag a facelift as Destination Medical Center transforms the city.

"What is it that one would do to not only capture what the identity of the city is today, but would also be lasting into the future," said Brede.

Mayor Brede even says he missed an opportunity to redesign Rochester's flag seven years ago for the city's 150th anniversary.

"I thought then that might have been a good time, but then we let that slip by," said Brede. "That's probably my fault on that."

So how would a new flag come to fruition?

Both Herold and Mayor Brede agree the new flag should be chosen through a contest involving the people of Rochester, with Brede giving the opening of the new Mayo Civic Center in 2017 and the renovation of the Chateau Theatre as possible dates to unveil it. It's an idea that's been done before–including by Rochester's neighbors to the West.

"The city of Byron has done it," said Herold. "Their flag is simple, direct, and clear."

Jeff Ihrke is the man behind Byron's flag, which was adopted after a contest in 2006. Ihrke won despite having no graphic design experience, and said he was motivated by his passion for his hometown.

"It's such a nice city and we were looking around just trying to say 'what would connect with the city of Byron?'" said Ihrke. "That's why we had the green grass and the blue sky. It's a great place to live and we want to convey that in the flag."

What separates a good flag from a bad one? The North American Vexillogical Association, or NAVA, commonly cites five guidelines: Keep it simple, use meaningful symbolism, use two to three colors, no lettering, and be unique.

In fact, NAVA ranked 150 cities' flags back in 2004 based on those principles. Washington D.C. and Chicago had the best flags, while Pocatello, Idaho's was the worst. Rochester's was not ranked.

Peter Orenski of NAVA says a good flag could even economically benefit Rochester if it's eye catching enough to sell in stores.

"We have in your case, patients from all over the world at the Mayo Clinic," said Orenski. "A pin or a table flag as a souvenir is something that is something that is going to stay with them forever."

A timeless flag to represent the Med City could mean much more than just symbols on a banner.

"It helps the city come together and it helps people recognize the city's art from there," said Herold. "A really good flag is tremendous."


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