Artist Janet Morris paints the scene in the Japanese meditation garden at the entrance to Germain Park Saturday. She was one of eight artists painting in the Communities in Bloom Artists in the Garden Tour. Tyler Kula/Sarnia Observer/Postmedia Network

Getting ready for a return to Communities in Bloom competition next year, the banners at Sarnia’s flagship parks are getting a much-needed makeover.

New, more inviting signs are already up at Germain and Centennial parks – a second Centennial Park sign is being made for the end of Venetian Boulevard, to catch the eyes of people coming off the Blue Water Bridge – and fundraising is underway for new signs at Veterans and Canatara parks this year, said Anne Marie Gillis, chair of the city’s Communities in Bloom Committee.

More than signs, they’re works of art, she said, noting local sign artist Dave Beatty has been commissioned for the work, started last year.

The city took a break from Communities in Bloom competition after claiming victory in 2015 in the international challenge for very large communities.

“You can only win it once,” Gillis said.

So, taking a step back, committee members zeroed in on making improvements.

“Our big focus has been to get the signage up in the parks,” Gillis said, “because that was one of the glaring things (judges) saw.”

Organizers also wanted to have Centennial Park remediation finished before diving back in, she said, noting when Sarnia does return in 2018 it’ll compete in the circle of champions category, against other international challenge victors.

Fundraising for signs has included a backyard makeover lottery that brought in about $21,000 earlier this year, Gillis said, and the Artists in the Garden Tour that saw eight artists painting in the open Saturday in gardens across the community.

People purchased tickets to tour the gardens and visit with the artists as they plied their craft.

The plein air, or on site, artwork was being raffled off at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery Sunday, with the hopes of bringing in about $3,500 for the cause, Gillis said.

“Our mandate is to make the city more beautiful, more livable, more friendly,” said Leona Holland, with the committee.

Having the artists in the gardens for the tour enriches the experience for everyone, she said, noting the artists donate their paintings to the cause.

“The paintings are beautiful,” she said.

The park signs are a significant investment, Gillis said, noting two for Canatara Park are expected to cost $20,000.

The second Centennial Park sign – the first is off Front Street, just south of Exmouth Street – is expected to go up in August.

“It’s going to be stunning” she said. “A nice introduction to the city.”

Plans are also to update the sign at Sarnia’s Chris Hadfield Airport, and continue developing partnerships with community supporters like the Bluewater Rotarians, she said.

A new program also recently started involving St. Patrick’s high school students creating decor for the parks, she said.

About 15 free-standing planters are slated to arrive later this year in Centennial Park, she said.

“We’ve got that program, just in its infancy this year, but we’re going to make it much bigger next year.”

Sarnia, meanwhile, is not entirely absent from Communities in Bloom, staying on in this year’s non-evaluated category.

That means the city doesn’t compete but is still featured at the awards ceremony, Gillis said, noting it’s also still eligible for grants like the one that helped open a Howard Watson Nature Trail gateway on Michigan Avenue last fall.

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