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Howard may sell name rights for parks Money is motivation; no offers yet to buy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Following a trend popularized by sports stadiums, Howard County officials are considering selling the names of 60 local parks to big corporations -- an idea sure to generate controversy as well as revenue.

Would Ellicott City's Centennial Park become the Coca Cola Recreational Area? Or would Pepsi pay more? County-sponsored research shows there's real money to be made from such commercial relationships.

"If it's done on the up and up, I think it's a win-win situation," says Gary J. Arthur, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks. "The potential is there."

Not only would Howard be the first county in the Baltimore metropolitan area to sell public park names, but it would also be a leader nationally.

Though Howard is willing to sell, no corporation has stepped forward with an offer to buy.

Still, the idea's not far-fetched. There is already a flourishing mini-industry of public-private partner-ships that includes selling stadium names, posting billboards on ball field fences and leasing public property to private golf course operators.

The Ravens football team -- with the permission of the Maryland Stadium Authority -- is negotiating with several corporations interested in having their names on the new Baltimore stadium.

Ocean City struck a $1.1 million deal last year making Coke the resort's official drink for five years.

And at one point, there was serious consideration of getting corporate sponsors for National Parks.

The name-selling proposal comes from a study commissioned last summer by Howard officials that found that Fairfax County, Va., earns $1.8 million annually from businesses that have deals involving parks -- including two Saturn automobile dealerships that donated a $35,000 playground to a nature center and a Domino's pizza franchise that runs a concession stand at a swimming facility.

How much Howard could charge for a park name would depend on several factors, including attendance and sales of concession rights, says Lance Helgeson, managing editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based newsletter that tracks the sponsorship industry.

Helgeson estimates that parks of several hundred acres could carry price tags of about $200,000, while smaller tracts could go for about $75,000.

For sponsors, it's an opportunity to advertise their products and promote their images in a positive environment. And some contend that the county would get other benefits from such links to business.

"It gets businesses -- small or large -- to think that they have a stake in the jurisdiction," says Richard Brady, vice president of David M. Griffith & Associates, Ltd., a Boston-based consulting firm that contracted with Howard last summer to research corporate partnerships. "If they think that they have something to benefit from the community, they'll be interested in making the environment work."

The idea is drawing a favorable response from the county's top elected official, a gubernatorial candidate.

"If the right partner can be found, I'm in favor of it," County Executive Charles I. Ecker says. "I would have to see what the county gets and what strings are attached, but it might be a good idea."

But the idea disturbs some community leaders and park activists who say it undermines the concept of public parkland.

"I think it's horrible," says Cecilia Januszkiewicz, a Columbia activist who has lobbied the county to buy a 300-acre farm in her community and convert it into a park. The proposal would affect only county parks, not those in Columbia controlled by the Columbia Association.

"A park belongs to all of us, not to the people who can afford to buy the name," Januszkiewicz says. "I think it's ill-conceived."

Adds Guy Guzzone, Maryland director of the Sierra Club and a Democratic candidate for the Howard County Council: "Does this diminish the county's perspective to fund parks? How intrusive are the [sponsoring] companies going to be? There are a lot of questions."

The debate illustrates a dilemma that many local governments face: buying parkland and organizing more programs residents want without raising the taxes they despise.

"People want more services for what they like, but no one wants to pay up," Ecker says.

Howard has already taken some steps down this road. It received about $50,000 from partnerships with businesses that have donated such amenities as fences and landscaping in 1997, Arthur says.

The parks department also earns $120,000 annually from program-generated revenue -- fees for everything from camps to ball field rental. Still, for fiscal year 1999, funding for the agency has increased only 4 percent.

To supplement the budget, the study recommended that Howard seek more business sponsorships.

"In this day and age, citizens are always looking for creative ways to supplement recreational facilities," says Merni Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Park Authority, a semi-independent agency that negotiates marketing deals with commercial enterprises.

Selling park names is seen as the next step in the evolution of partnerships with businesses. For now, most parks are named after geographical features such as rivers or towns; historical landmarks; or donors who have recently died.

That could all change, says Thomas B. White Jr., a member of the Fairfax County Park Authority Board. "You hate to commercialize, but I think it's getting to the point where you have to think about it."

The idea once gained the attention of the Clinton administration, which proposed opening the National Park Service's 55 parks to corporate sponsors.

Marketing experts had estimated that the Park Service would have raised $150 million from sponsorships, but the proposal died in 1996 after furious lobbying by environmental groups.

"We had lots of concerns about the lines getting blurred between the purpose of parks and the specter of something like, 'The Grand Canyon brought to you by Kodak,' " says Kathy Westra, spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Park xTC and Conservation Association, which fought the bill. "I think it's naive to assume that a company would do something out of complete altruism. They're going to want something in return."

That scares Ken Paynter, president of the Middle Patuxent Valley Association, which monitors the 630-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area in Columbia. He is concerned about a sponsorship's legacy after the contract runs out.

"You might have a situation where ecological preservation is en vogue," Paynter says. "Then when everything is said and done, we'll be stuck with a park named after a corporation. That sets a dangerous precedent."

County Solicitor Barbara Cook says the idea must be scrutinized for any legal and ethical problems. Some of the questions: Would the revenue gained from such a venture be categorized as a private use of the park? If so, would it jeopardize the tax-exempt bonds that financed many parks?

Cook also notes that naming rights would have to be offered through competitive bidding, and that companies with existing contracts for services would have to be prohibited from bidding to reduce any claims of favoritism.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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