January 10th, 2008

Set Strict Rules on Naming Rights

Detroit Free Press

Name that pier. Or hiking trail. Or maybe even a state park.

Yes, it could happen. You’d have to put up some money, of course. But unfortunately, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will soon be ready to hear your case.

Today, the state Natural Resources Commission will review proposed policies for partnerships and naming rights, with action expected next month. The good news is that, in most cases, names could not be changed for existing places already named for the resource they feature or a noteworthy DNR official.

The commission was forced to order up a policy after a $1-million donation for the White Pine Trail came in from the Meijer Foundation, available only in return for naming it after Fred Meijer. The commission balked, but in 2006 the Legislature jumped in and ordered the department to accept both the gift and the name.

That’s to lawmakers’ shame, because in an ideal world, naming rights wouldn’t be considered for the pristine places where people try to leave the commercial world behind. Now, however, a policy really is necessary to keep lawmakers from interfering every time someone shows up with cash.

The rules can be stiffer, though, at least initially, to ensure that signs and other reminders don’t overwhelm state parks and forests.

For starters, the decision on what to allow falls solely to the DNR director, unless naming rights last longer than 25 years, in which case the commission decides on them. That threshold should be shorter. A pilot phase is in order, with the commission taking responsibility—and public comment—on proposals that last more than a few years. Anything longer will seem permanent to park-goers anyway.

Without knowing who’s going to be interested in partnerships, this is a real roll of the dice for Michiganders who want to get away from it all. Will it be pharmaceutical companies that come calling, asking for the Flomax overlook at Tahquamenon Falls? Will it be the familiar firms that usually seek sponsorships? Retailers tied to outdoor activities? Or companies seeking to curry favor?

The policy should at least bar participation by natural resources industries that need to lease land or mineral rights from the state, which is the only way to assure the public that favors aren’t being traded behind the scenes.

Finally, the policy lists no dollar amounts. That may boost the DNR’s ability to bargain, but it also leaves the Meijer precedent as the only existing guide. Naming values are surely higher than in that deal. When it comes to providing scenic attractions in a state as bountiful with them as Michigan is, a million here and a million there is not actually real money.


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