October 8th, 2007

Nonprofit may sell naming rights of high school arts center

By Ben Goessling
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Private funding - and possibly corporate naming rights - could be key to fine arts space at Woodbury's new East Ridge High School.

When East Ridge High School opens in Woodbury in 2009, its fine arts facilities could be the envy of the metro area.

Adjacent to the 900-seat theater already planned for the school, there could be up to 10,000 extra square feet for the arts, including a smaller, black box theater, an art gallery and additional classroom space.

The only thing is, those kinds of extras don’t come cheap. So the fine arts center could come with corporate sponsorship, too.

The Arts Connection, a Washington County-based nonprofit leading the effort to build the additional fine arts center, is considering naming rights as a way to help raise the $1.5 million in pledges it needs by March 1.

While naming rights have been sold for community centers used by public high school sports teams, sponsorship of schools’ fine arts facilities appears to be breaking new ground in Minnesota. Officials at two state education associations couldn’t recall hearing of any.

Neither could prominent educators, Minnesota Education Theater Association president Gregg Sawyer or Perpich Center for Arts Education interim high school director Alice Woog.

If the proposed arts center goes through, it would give East Ridge as many arts spaces as the Perpich Center offers, according to Woog.

The Arts Connection has received a $1.6 million pledge, which it will use as an endowment for operational costs, and is looking to donors for capital costs. In exchange for the school providing land, East Ridge students could use the facility throughout the year.

The group has no corporate sponsorship offers yet, and only elements of the fine arts center—not the high school theater—would be named after a donor. But the Arts Connection and the South Washington County school board are at least open to the idea of securing the facility with naming rights.

“My personal belief is districts have to look at it,” board chairman Ron Kath said. “Donors aren’t looking at a big marquee. It’s a great way to show how private businesses can partner with public schools.”

Public schools are looking for ways to increase funding. A hundred districts are asking voters this fall to approve referendums for higher property tax levies, and 32 districts are holding bonding elections to finance new schools, additions or other construction.

Naming rights sold elsewhere

Nationwide, the idea of naming rights in schools has gradually caught on.

The Philadelphia school district announced in 2004 that it would sell naming rights to a high school for $5 million, and in the last two years, high schools in Michigan and Wisconsin have offered everything from playgrounds to stadiums to lunchrooms.

Naming rights aren’t as prominent at Minnesota schools—the idea only became legal with a 2003 change in law—but corporate tie-ins do exist at some schools.

Eden Prairie High School’s hockey teams play next to the suburb’s Community Center, where Supervalu paid $100,000 for naming rights to the main rink.

“It gives corporate donors an opportunity for visibility,” said Michelle Witte, an Arts Connection board member and the Woodbury Community Theater president. “If you’re going to say, ‘Come to the black box theater in the fine arts center,’ the better strategy would be to say, ‘Come to the Associated Bank Black Box Theater inside the East Ridge Fine Arts Center.’”

But although Sawyer praised the East Ridge project for finding an innovative way to include extra fine arts space, he disagrees with the idea of students performing in a corporate-sponsored facility.

“Corporations have so many other opportunities,” he said. “You walk into the Guthrie Theater, you see the Target lounge. I think it can be problematic for schools.”

Witte said the Arts Connection’s other fundraising strategy is to recognize individual sponsors with seat plaques and a donor wall in the main high school theater.

Associated Bank, Witte said, has shown interest in offering financing if donors sign three-year pledges and pay the first year up front.

Black box theaters typically seat around 150 people and feature few design elements other than black walls.

Minnetonka got one in 2000 as part of a fine arts center expansion somewhat similar to the proposal for East Ridge.

The school provided land for the project, which was funded by the city of Minnetonka and includes more than 10,000 square feet of arts space.

“I don’t want 900 seats if I’m doing a Shakespeare piece,” Minnetonka theater director Kent Knutson said. “Kids are looking for more of that kind of experience. They’re not always going to be in the big musical.”

The fine arts center also would give the 32-year-old Woodbury Community Theater a permanent home. Now, Witte and the school board are banking on creativity extending to a fundraising drive.

“Sometimes things look great from the beginning, and you realize there are some complications to it,” said Marsha Adou, school board vice chairwoman. “I think you have to [look at corporate funding these days]. You just have to be careful.”

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