Looking for a home for Wholey's electric fish

Water location top choice in poll

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What better place to put a fish than in the water.

That appears to be the sentiment of many Pittsburghers, at least when it comes to the smiling fish that has been the emblem of Wholey's Fish Market in the Strip District for nearly 25 years.

In one form or another, they want the fish in or near the water -- whether it's mounted on a barge or a boat or dangling from one of the city's many bridges, perhaps as a variation to the giant rubber duck that visited Pittsburgh last fall.

Nearly three weeks into a campaign to find a new home for the much-loved sign, Jim Wholey, president of Robert Wholey & Co., said a water or near-water location probably has been the top vote-getter so far.

"You'd be surprised how many people suggested it, whether it be on a boat or the 16th Street Bridge," he said. "If a duck is that important to Pittsburgh, think what a smiling fish could do."

Should a water location end up with the most votes, Mr. Wholey said he would definitely explore putting the sign there, even if only as a temporary home. He said he found the idea refreshing.

"I did not think of that. I thought it was really clever," he said.

Not that Mr. Wholey has had to fish for ideas. So far, the campaign Wholey's and Mayor Bill Peduto launched Dec. 23 has generated about 1,000 responses, more than organizers anticipated.

Other popular venues for the smiling fish include the Heinz History Center and Mount Washington.

For more than two decades, the fish has occupied one side of a former cold storage warehouse the company used for years.

It is being relocated because the new owners of the building are planning to convert it into a 144-unit apartment complex. Wholey's Fish Market will not be affected.

Mr. Wholey said some voters have suggested that the fish stay where it is, an idea he did not dismiss out of hand. "We're working on it. We're trying to work with the developers," he said.

Wholey's owners have vowed to follow the location that garners the most votes from the public. The sign must stay within city limits, and the property owner must give permission. Mr. Peduto has vowed to help with the zoning.

The sign, erected as a Christmas gift in 1989, holds $16,000 worth of eco-friendly LED bulbs and measures 100 feet wide by 60 feet high.

Mr. Wholey said he has been touched by the outpouring of nominations and sentiments for the sign, including those from people who say they know they are home when the see it.

"I'm overwhelmed. It shows how devoted our customers are, how devoted people are to local businesses. Pittsburghers are very loyal, not only to the Pirates and the Steelers, but to their local food supplier," he said.

The voting runs until Jan. 31. To vote, drop a nomination in one of the red boxes at Wholey's; "like" Wholey's on Facebook or follow the company on Twitter @wholeys and post a nomination using the hashtag #smilingfish and share your favorite memory of the sign; or email a nomination to smilingfishsign@gmail.com.

A winner is expected to be announced at a news conference Feb. 1.

Of the nominations received so far, one person suggested that the fish be incorporated into an arch welcoming visitors into the Strip District, similar to an archway created for the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego. A sampling of other nominations included these ideas:

• "How about in the river just beyond the stadium so it can smile each time a Pirate hits one into the river."

• "I nominate a barge as a secure final resting place for the Wholey fish sign -- since a fish belongs in water!"

• "I would like to see the sign flying high above the store on its own, stand-alone structure. I would donate to pay for the new sign structure -- after all of the GREAT fish that I have eaten that you provided it is only fit that a REAL monument be built."

• "Can he live with the ketchup bottle over at Heinz History Center? Or do you think they'd make cocktail sauce and eat him?"

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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