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Massachusetts may sell naming rights to parks, forests

Friday, May 9, 2003

BOSTON -- With the state facing a $3 billion deficit, Massachusetts lawmakers are considering selling corporate sponsors the naming rights to parks and forests, including the Walden Woods immortalized by Henry David Thoreau.

Some big-city mayors around the country have considered similar proposals, but Massachusetts would be the first state to pass such a law.

The move is a reflection of the desperate financial straits in which many states and local governments find themselves.

"It seems to me, should there be parks, information kiosks and all kinds of potential opportunities, let's just talk about them," said Republican state Rep. Bradley Jones Jr., the House minority leader who drafted the measure. "If we weren't in a major budget crisis, people wouldn't necessarily focus their efforts there."

But the prospect of a leafy stroll in a forest emblazoned with the name of a Fortune 500 company has alarmed environmental groups.

"What's next, big plastic Coke bottles on top of the Statehouse?" said Jim Gomes, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. "It's really a bad joke."

House lawmakers on Monday voted to draw up guidelines for sponsoring and renaming parks and forests. The measure, part of the proposed budget, goes next to the Senate. Once the guidelines are developed, lawmakers would have to vote again on whether to actually authorize such sales.

Lawmakers said they have no estimate of how much money the idea might raise, and are uncertain what restrictions would be placed on sponsorship deals. Those details would be worked out in a report due by November.

Elsewhere around the county, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired a consultant to devise a plan to raise money by selling, among other things, naming rights to parks in the Big Apple. Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Sacramento, Calif., considered similar ideas in recent years.

"We're at a time when everything is for sale," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an Oregon-based nonprofit group that opposes commercialization in government. "Mayors are willing to put a price tag on anything, no matter what the price on the culture."

Steve Adams, president of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank, said selling corporate naming rights is a no-brainer.

"I don't know how you could be against this, frankly," he said. "No one is talking about putting up giant signs that mar the landscape. If companies are willing to do it, why not tap that opportunity?"

The National Park Service has several hundred partnerships with businesses. Target and the Discovery Channel made donations toward the recent restoration of the Washington Monument. Interpretive signs for visitors included small company logos.

"They understand that this is not their opportunity to advertise," National Park Service spokesman Gerry Gaumer said. "A partner does have to get something. They can pitch later that, 'We helped restore the Washington Monument."'

But renaming a National Park site for corporate interests is out of the question, he said.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has also allowed companies to attach their names to specific exhibits and attractions. An exhibit of cars, trains and motorcycles, due to open in November, will be housed in the General Motors Hall of Transportation, which will carry the automaker's name for the next 30 years under a $10 million deal with GM.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History titled a traveling exhibit in 2001 the Smithsonian O. Orkin Insect Safari after Orkin Pest Control contributed $1.2 million.

In Asheville, N.C., the Buncombe County Parks and Recreation agency is offering naming rights to tennis courts, swimming pools and trails but has no takers yet.

"We always try to lower the costs to the taxpayers as much as possible," said Rhett Langston, the agency's administrative officer. "By utilizing private dollars, we can do that much more. That seems to be the future of parks all across the country."

Businesses regularly pay millions to attach their names to sports and entertainment venues, such as the FleetCenter in Boston, sponsored by Fleet Bank. M&T Bank this week agreed to pay the Baltimore Ravens $5 million a year for 15 years to put its name on the football team's stadium.

Kristi Argyilan, media director at Boston advertising agency Hill Holliday, said corporate sponsorships of parks would have to be tactful.

"The name of the park itself should never be changed in the name of a corporation," she said. "We all have to remember why people go to parks: It is to escape a lot of the chatter we marketers throw at them every day. 'Yosemite, brought to you by Nike' is more palatable than 'Nike State Park."'


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