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Monkeying with Monikers

Naming rights to county parks and bridges may soon be on offer

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County Councilor Ed Kress imagines county residents jogging in Home Depot Park on the Adidas running trail. After exercising, they might sit down in the shade of Mellon Bank Pavilion for a picnic of an Uncle Charley's sausage on a Mancini's roll with Heinz mustard, washed down with ice-cold Pepsi -- the official sausage, bread, mustard and soft drink of Allegheny County.

 

 

If Kress and others on Allegheny County Council have their way, the sun and the chirping birds could all come to you in care of a sponsor -- for the right price, of course.

 

The sky's almost the limit for Kress's county proposal, although he can't imagine allowing names of historical significance to be changed or selling "re-naming rights" to something. Kress, who has been on council for about a month, often points to the 16th Street Bridge as a great item to rename.

 

"I want to raise a lot of money and give the people of this county a tax cut," he explains matter-of-factly. "To do that, we have got to be as creative as possible."

 

Selling the rights to name publicly owned and publicly funded facilities has long been a bone of contention in the region, most recently surrounding the new stadiums. Heinz agreed to spend $57 million over 20 years to name the new Steelers' stadium while PNC threw in $30 million over the same period for the new Pirates' park. The 16th Street Bridge would presumably go for a lot less.

 

"It may not be the magic bullet that cures all of our ills, but let's use our resources to the maximum effect," Kress says. "You always hear about California doing this or that. Why can't Pittsburgh be the innovator? Why can't we do something new and unique?"

 

New York -- and, yes, California -- are already leaders in creating and rejecting such programs, which can be cash cows for municipalities.

 

In 2003, Snapple paid $166 million to become the official beverage of New York City. San Diego has a program similar to the one Kress is proposing, although it is not as far-reaching. In roughly three years, the city has made $5 million by making Verizon the official wireless carrier, inviting Chevrolet to provide beach-patrol cars and making Pepsi the official beverage, with exclusive vending rights on city property.

 

For nearly two years, beginning in 2002, San Francisco officials battled over whether to sell the naming rights to historic, taxpayer-owned Candlestick Park. Last November, the question was put on the ballot and defeated 55 percent to 45 percent.

 

When it's a question for the public to decide, says Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, they'll vote against advertising every time.

 

Commercial Alert, based in Portland, Ore., aims to keep commercialism from the public sphere. Ruskin is its co-founder, along with consumer advocate and presidential also-ran Ralph Nader.

 

"People are fed up with being hammered by ads," Ruskin says. "The other problem is that it raises serious [charges of] conflict of interest. The worst thing that can happen is that elected officials put themselves in a position to be beholden to sponsors.

 

"We can all say it won't happen, but when you start talking about that kind of money . . ."

 

Allowing naming rights on such a grand municipal scale -- to slap a corporate name on anything that draws the public interest -- is a relatively new concept, he says. And it's a trend that has him worried, no matter how fat the wad of cash at the end of the rainbow.

 

"Selling these rights is an improper confiscation of public property for commercial use," Ruskin insists. "If the members of Allegheny County Council want to re-name their parks something, tell them to name one 'Taxpayer Park,' because they've been the ones paying for it all these years."

 

Kress' plan, which begins with the formation of an ad-hoc committee to investigate the sale of naming rights, is now being studied by council's economic development committee. Should his legislation, which was co-sponsored by members Eileen Watt, Vince Gasteb, Jan Rea and Bill Robinson, come up for a vote, Kress hopes to add a guaranteed tax cut for residents once a certain amount of money is raised -- for instance, $25 million.

 

To achieve that level of naming income, he says, will take inventive forms of corporate sponsorship: billboards on outfield walls at county baseball fields and park-bench sponsorships, for starters. On a larger scale, Kress proposes selling the actual names of county-owned property, from parks to bridges and everything in between. The next step is selling exclusive franchise rights for companies to become the official something (from beverages to cars to credit cards) of Allegheny County.

 

Allegheny County's potential willingness to sell any nameless piece of property is unique, says Ruskin, but that isn't necessarily a good thing.

 

A similarly inclusive naming plan was introduced in Milwaukee in 2001 but never really got off the ground because of public outcry, Ruskin notes. Milwaukee's proposal would have put signs on all types of municipal property, including garbage trucks, but it never went beyond the initial discussions.

 

"What makes people a community is that feeling of shared history," he says. "What naming rights does is slap a corporate name on something and erase that history. It's a corrosive policy and I would be surprised if residents allow it to happen, regardless of how much money it might raise."

 

Kress says he wants to find a form of "un-obstructive advertising" without littering landscapes with signs and logos. He also hopes a certain percentage of sponsored credit-card purchases would go to the county or a particular park or entity. The money from all these new monikers would go directly into the county's general fund, meaning no politician will be beholden to any corporation. Such naming-rights contracts would also prohibit companies from using threats to pull their funding as leverage to further any other business with the county.

 

For Kress, taking the risk is a forward-thinking way to help not only the county, but each individual citizen.

 

"What are you supposed to tell a person who is tapped out because property taxes are so high? We haven't had any layoffs and we're not raising taxes," Kress says. "We have to do something other than raising local, state and federal taxes. We have to get imaginative and we have to do something soon."

 

Adult Mart Bridge, anyone?

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