September 17th, 2002

Villages Hustle to Sell Naming Rights

By Lynette Kalsnes
Chicago Tribune

The Skokie Park District touts Pepsi as its "exclusive soft drink provider," and Elgin’s new recreation center will have a Lundstrom Insurance Agency locker room and Great Lakes Snow Systems climbing wall.

In San Diego, visitors with heart problems might well be saved by one of the city’s "official automated external defibrillators," made by Cardiac Science.

A trend that has plastered corporate names all over sports fields and arenas is trickling down to the municipal level in the Chicago area and the rest of the nation.

In a twist on the tradition in which buildings were named in honor of philanthropists or volunteers, many park districts, municipalities and schools are sticking a price tag on the naming rights to community centers and laundry rooms.

They’re also agreeing to endorse products in exchange for cash, goods and services.

Spend enough, and a corporation can have an entire facility named after it, like the $8.9 million Schaumburg Park District’s multi-sports complex, under construction and shopping for a donor. Have a tighter budget? Get a racquetball court at Elgin’s rec center for $2,000.

The trend is generating debate over whether naming rights are windfalls that help build public facilities and fund service projects, or yet another sign of increased commercialism.

Naming rights are just one of the ways governments are increasingly straddling the line between public and private, said Michael Silverstein, author of two books on the movement he calls "public enterprise."

Naming and sponsorships are nothing new, Silverstein said. But whenever the economy tightens, the idea resurfaces with new intensity. Governments are turning more and more to advertising, sponsorships, concessions, product sales and licensing to avoid raising taxes, he said.

"The naming thing is spreading," he said. "It’s getting down to smaller and smaller things."

California is at the forefront. Lifeguards cut through the water in Izod suits dubbed "the official swimwear of the Los Angeles County beach lifeguards" and speed across the sand in Nissans, the "official vehicle sponsor."

Back in Illinois, Vernon Hills High School recently sold its football stadium name to Rust-Oleum Corp. for $100,000.

Until earlier this year, Visa was the Skokie Park District’s official "preferred card." In exchange for Pepsi and Visa endorsements, concession rights and plugs in brochures and at events, Skokie was paid up to $150,000 a year, said Executive Director Steve Hartman.

Selling naming rights is a great marketing opportunity for corporations and for public facilities, said Sandy Harris, manager of the new Schaumburg sports complex.

Although several park districts are actively seeking sponsors, the Westmont board has decided against it.

"The question we posed was, what are we, a Park District or a public business?" said James Long, board vice president. "I have a little bit of concern with commercializing it too much. We are run and elected by the public."

Skokie Park District draws the line at renaming parks.

"We’re not going to name parks after company A, B or C," Hartman said. "I think parks are aesthetically a kind of oasis for a very urban area like ours. I think it’s reasonable [that] a person should be able to go to at least one place and not see some advertising."

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