January 26th, 2001

Norquist Toys With Idea of Your-name-here Sponsors

By Greg Borowski
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Faced with tight budgets and rising costs, Mayor John O. Norquist is looking for creative ways to bring in new revenue for the city—including selling ad space on garbage trucks and selling naming rights for buildings, bridges and streets.

The idea, still in the what-if-we-tried-this stage, got mixed reviews from aldermen stopped in the Potawatomi Rotunda at the Miller Time City Hall.

Actually, City Hall is still City Hall—and name selling probably would never go that far. But that the city is thinking about entering the world of corporately named sports stadiums is a sign of how tight the budget is.

The concept is already being explored by other cities, including Atlanta, which is considering selling naming rights to its airport.

A written advance copy of a "State of the City" speech Norquist delivered Thursday night included references to the idea, although the mayor omitted them when he delivered the address in Bradley Hall at Rockwell International Corp., 1201 S. 2nd St.

"It’s something being considered with a whole range of things, but it’s probably something that’s going to be a minor revenue source," Steve Jacquart, Norquist’s policy adviser, said after the speech. " It’s not like we’re going to go on eBay and auction off these things or hang signs on City Hall."

The written copy of Norquist’s speech noted that the city has begun leasing space in conduits underneath streets to telecommunication companies, which now brings in about $290,000 a year.

"We’re even considering selling advertising on municipal equipment and parking structures," the speech said. "We’re considering naming rights for buildings, bridges and streets. We’re searching for more options that can lighten the burden on Milwaukee taxpayers."

It’s somewhat unclear how the idea would work, or just how much corporate interest there would be in, say, a George Webb Bridge over the Hey Culligan Man River downtown. The easiest moneymaker to envision, perhaps, is advertising on the city’s downtown parking structures, which have been a $1 million-a-year drain on the budget.

In theory, garbage trucks could get billboards on their sides, much like Milwaukee County Transit System buses—though the value may be limited since the garbage trucks (brought to you by Spic and Span?) spend much of their time in alleys and not on major streets.

The city has dozens of buildings around the city, including police stations, firehouses, libraries and Department of Public Works structures. Would Master Lock sponsor a police station? Real Chili a firehouse? Waldenbooks the Central Library?

Could individuals get involved, buying themselves a distinction usually reserved for movers, shakers and policy-makers? ("You know, Timmy, that traffic signal is named after your grandfather, who used to be a crossing guard at this very intersection.")

A mixed reception

"I’ve never been a fan of naming rights," said Ald. Mike D’Amato, a member of the Common Council’s Finance and Personnel Committee. "I’m all for creative ways to raise funds, but I think it diminishes the impression people have of a city."

Ald. Willie Hines, another member of the committee, said the concept is worth exploring.

He said he thinks the mayor’s comments are "designed to identify whether people are out there that may be interested," adding any advertising should be done with "tact and taste."

Common Council President Marvin Pratt, who is a member of the board of the Wisconsin Center District, which operates the Midwest Express Center, U.S. Cellular Arena and (the board hopes) the soon-to- be-sponsored Milwaukee Auditorium, said any sales effort would probably make a small dent in budget problems.

"Other than for a main structure, it’s not the best way to generate revenue," Pratt said. "I don’t want to completely dismiss the effort, but we have to think about doing even more, possibly a hiring freeze."

In recent years, Norquist has made informal remarks in his annual speech, which is part of observances marking the anniversary of the city’s founding. The birthday event is sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club.

But this year, in hopes of focusing the public’s attention on policy objectives, Norquist delivered a full-fledged speech that offered an upbeat assessment of how the city is doing.

The mayor sometimes ad libs in delivering speeches, aides said in explaining why he did not talk about naming rights as planned. Norquist may have decided the subject was off the main point, the aides said.

The address touted efforts under way to attract more high-tech jobs to the city, improve neighborhoods and cut the crime rate in half. A major hurdle to all those goals, Norquist said, is keeping the property tax rate in check, hence the need for finding new sources of revenue.

The 2001 budget broke a 12-year string in which the city’s property tax rate fell every year.

Underrated town

Norquist’s speech noted that Milwaukee recently was ranked the most underrated city in America by the Utne Reader.

"Being named America’s most underrated city is a whole lot better than being named its most overrated city," he said. "But we don’t want to stay on this list long. In the future, we want to be properly rated as one of the country’s top places to live and work."

Norquist cited progress in attracting high-tech firms, noting that many of the older Third Ward buildings—with high ceilings and strong floors—are perfect for conversion to businesses with large computer servers.

He called on the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp. to set aside $1 million this year—$200,000 to help entrepreneurs get venture capital, $800,000 in loans to high-tech companies.

He also touted the central city, where the concentrated buying power of residents is greater than in many suburbs.

Norquist said the city would lobby for changes to the state’s welfare program that would expand work incentives to non-custodial parents, most of them men. Another worry, he said, is that parents now eligible for the school choice program may lose eligibility by earning more.

"A parent with three children can get a $1,000 raise and lose tuition support totaling $15, 000," Norquist said. "That’s a perverse disincentive. It’s punishment for family success."

Much of the mayor’s speech focused on the city’s best selling points—all the more reason the name-selling initiative stood out out like, well, a gaudy sign atop a prominent building downtown.

"You already have the Wells Fargo and Firstar signs," Pratt said. "A lot of people look at them as tacky."

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