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A professor and optical technology expert at Montana State University says the relighting of the “Hotel Baxter” sign downtown affects MSU’s optics research and Bozeman’s growing optics industry.

Meanwhile, the sign’s owner says he will try to alleviate some of the concerns by turning the sign off at 1 a.m. each night.

Joseph Shaw, director of MSU’s Optical Technology Center and a professor of electrical engineering and physics, said light from the bright, red Baxter sign affects sensitive optical receivers being tested on the roof at Cobleigh Hall.

“We’re sitting on one of the tallest buildings on campus, looking directly over the top of the Baxter,” Shaw said Monday. “It’s like somebody taking a competing light source and holding it up to get as close to our measurements as possible. I know they didn’t design (the sign) to do that, but that’s why it’s a particular problem.”

Shaw said MSU researchers are inventing new sensors and using them to conduct research ranging from weather forecasting and climate studies to military sensing.

“These sensors depend on being able to see into the night sky without a lot of extraneous light pollution,” he said.

Further, Shaw said the research contributes to a growing number of optical technology companies in town, such as ILX Lightwave and Bridger Photonics. Since 1980, he said, more than 24 optics companies have set up shop in Bozeman. And in many cases, Shaw said the companies use technology or ideas developed in concert with the university.

“So, if we impair the optics research at MSU, we are also impairing the health of the optics companies in town,” he said. “It isn’t an us-versus-them thing. It’s very much an issue that I think is important for the entire community.”

Shaw said a recent study funded by the governor’s office found that Bozeman optics companies are an up-and-coming component of the Montana economy, as one of the few places in the state where there’s a significant amount of high-tech companies clustered together.

Bozeman has significantly less light pollution than the average city, Shaw said. People can still look up at night and see the faint band of stars created by the Milky Way or the rare northern lights moving across the sky.

The city of Bozeman does a better job than most cities in protecting dark skies, Shaw said, but a growing number of streetlights and improper lighting techniques are threatening that status.

Shaw said in addition to affecting optics research, the Baxter sign and the increasing amount of light pollution in Bozeman affects the Montana Aurora Detector Network, which sends text and email alerts to stargazers when the aurora borealis is occurring.

Proper lighting techniques include shielded fixtures that point the light down and away from the sky, reduced brightness and restricted color content, Shaw said.

Shaw and David Loseff, the majority owner of the Baxter, have scheduled a meeting to discuss ways to compromise.

“We respect the university and are sensitive to these issues,” Loseff said. “Our sign was a 1929 sign, which predated their current project, and I hope (Shaw) can be as sensitive to the history of the community and historic preservation.”

Loseff said Monday he plans to turn the sign off each night at 1 a.m. when businesses close in the Baxter building. The sign is turned on at 5 p.m.

Loseff suggested perhaps MSU’s equipment could be tested in more rural areas outside of town.

“Bozeman is a large and growing community,” he said.

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628. She is on Twitter at @amandaricker.

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