The Downtown Austin Wayfinding Program kicked off Jan. 17 with the project's first public meeting held at the Dougherty Arts Center.

The initiative aims to ease navigation of the downtown area and will integrate a range of tools, such as pedestrian directional signs, brochures, kiosks and smartphone applications.

"There's a natural appeal to Austin," said Linda Atkins of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's known nationally and internationally that we're pretty cool."

According to Atkins, the visitor volume of Austin and Round Rock combined in 2010 totaled 19.8 million people, while visitor spending generated $3.9 billion and local travel revenue generated $85 million.

Glen Swantak, principal at Merje Design, the firm consulting with the city on the project, emphasized encouragement of more overnight stays for Austin tourists as well as improvement and consistency in what people see as they approach entry zones into the city.

The wayfinding improvement project was outlined in the Downtown Austin Plan adopted by City Council in December.

The initial project boundaries span to the west to Lamar Boulevard, east to I-35, south to Lady Bird Lake and stops short of The University of Texas campus to the north. However, Swantak said the boundaries are subject to change as public and stakeholder opinion is gathered.

The total budget will depend on the size, complexity and priories of the final design, but Swantak estimated it will be around $750,000 to $1 million. He also said the final design is projected to be finished in September.

According to Christine Freundl, the senior planner for the city's Planning and Development Review Department, possible funding sources include continued grants combined with additional grants for increasing sustainability and wellness. The consulting fee totals $200,000, which is being funded by the recently increased parking fees.

Another emphasis in the design will be addressing public parking concerns. Swantak said public parking garages and lots need to be identified more clearly. Additionally, technology could provide real-time information through iPod applications or text messages such as which lots and garages still have space available.

Concerns expressed by members of the public included environmental awareness and transportation.

Swantak said the design will incorporate environmentally friendly material and processes such as solar power for gateways and kiosks. He also mentioned the possibility of kiosks where people can provide visitor information.

He said improvements for all modes of public transportation are being considered.

Nailah Sankofa, who owns a fashion studio in East Austin and is looking at the possibility of opening one downtown, raised the issue of how hard it can be to find a cab and suggested possible central taxi locations. She also suggested providing wayfinding information on buses.

"I literally have to get off the bus to help people around," she stated.

Sankofa said she liked the idea of kiosks with people to recommend restaurants, family-friendly attractions and encourage shopping at locally owned businesses.

"Information from people who know the city would be helpful," she said "Really, it's the best way to get around."

The next step in the process, according to Swantak, will be stakeholders meetings, but more public meetings will be held in the coming months.