Salem man seeks to retire city’s obscure, “ugly” flag | State

Emilee Geist

SALEM — You probably didn’t know Salem had a flag. Or that its design is so bad by certain standards that someone is hosting a contest to design a new one.

Brian McKinley is on a mission to make Salem’s flag better.

As a member of Salem’s planning commission, he started a subcommittee in January with the intent to change the flag with its white star radiating yellow, blue and green, the word “Salem” and an outline of the Oregon Capitol.

The subcommittee’s efforts were sidelined because of COVID-19, but McKinley is forging ahead with a contest that will run until July 2021. Flag designs can be submitted online to salemflagproject.com.

McKinley said the flag design was created in the 1970s after local banks held a contest to promote tourism. Not many people know of its existence. One flag is on display in the council chambers at city hall.

“It screams 1970s. It says Salem on it. I think it’s just a simple design they copied from the State Capitol. If you look at the rotunda inside, you see the star with five things radiating outside of it,” McKinley said.

McKinley said students in the Young Leaders Program at Willamette University will judge the entries and announce finalists next year. Then he’ll take the winners to Salem City Council for a final decision, but said he’s unsure what the council’s appetite is for changing the design.

McKinley has received seven submissions but expects there will be hundreds by the time the contest ends. He’s posted about the design contest on pages aimed at flag enthusiasts as well as on popular online forum Reddit to spark interest.

Salem’s flag violates many of the five rules for “good flag design” according to the North American Vexillological Association, a group of people passionate about flags.

The rules include keeping the design simple enough to draw from memory, two to three basic colors, no lettering or seals and must be distinctive. It also should include meaningful symbolism, such as the French tri-color flag that used to represent the French Revolution’s goals for liberty, equality and brotherhood.

He said flags invoke spirit and civic pride and serve as a way for a community to rally around a cause.

McKinley pointed to Portland’s flag — a green field with a white four-pointed star radiating blue and yellow stripes — as an example. Portland’s flag was ranked seventh out of 150 city flags in a 2004 survey by the North American Vexillological Association and features prominently at Portland Timbers games. Salem’s flag was ranked 51st.

“They fly it like there’s no tomorrow. If we can come up with something that even approaches the feelings (associated with the Portland flag), then I will be very content with the process that we went through,” McKinley said.

McKinley, who’s the director of the Oregon Legislative Education and Outreach Office, said he’s always been interested in the concept of flags. In the eighth grade he and his friends created a country called the United Sanarian Republic and crafted a flag from two t-shirts, one red and one blue. He said they added the blue because of weekends they spent on lakes near Oakridge.

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