Monday, February 19, 2007

Block branding in the parks

Before delving into this, I want to give you the place to comment on Portland Park and Recreation’s (PPR) proposal to sell naming rights to parks facilities. You have until this Friday.

Do it. Or read this, and then DO IT.

The alternative could be “Jockey” gym at the Southwest Community Center, or park swings brought to our children by “Nestles.”

I wish I could be as sanguine as my fellow blogger and activist Amanda Fritz about last week’s City Hall meeting on this sordid matter.

I found the two-hour session troubling in several ways.

Start with the fact that neither Parks Director Zari Santer nor Parks Commissioner Dan Salzman was present.

Then note that the meeting was the public’s one chance to comment in person on the proposal and its mushy language.

You’d have to be a PPR groupie to know that “the Citywide Parks Team,” the convening group, is not a closed cadre of parks managers but rather a diverse gathering of, well, parks groupies.

So when it was announced that the draft “Sponsorship Policy” would be presented and discussed, I figured I’d be an outsider looking in.

I wasn’t. That was reassuring until I realized that this would be a Q&A rather than a wholesome debate about underlying policy.

Those presenting the draft and fielding questions tried to give corporate sponsorships a “feel good” feeling. How wonderful it was to “form partnerships” with Nike and others, and “to leverage assets” (the public’s assets, by the way) and “develop diverse revenue streams” and “create win-win situations.”

The staff presenters often blurred the distinction between sponsors, who contract for something (a naming rights, primarily) in return for their cash “partnership,” and donors, who give with little (and even no) expectation of acknowledgement.

Definitions and words are important. At one point we were told that Columbia Sportswear had “adopted” Sellwood Park to help maintain it. Very nice, but just who is putting our parks up for “adoption”? Columbia Sportswear, a true donor, is to be commended, but I suggested a better choice of words lest we put the entire city up for corporate “adoption” of a worse kind—specifically naming rights sponsorship.

The chief presenter was PPR Marketing & Business Development Manager Bob Schulz, an affable fellow with a down-home PR manner. But when we got down to cases, he turned terse and defensive:

• What about Portland’s naming rights poster child, PGE Park? It isn’t part of PPR.
• Does its name create a city precedent? No, it was ad hoc.
• What about the large Nike logos on parks basketball courts Nike paid to have resurfaced? We wouldn’t do it that way if we had it to do again.
• What about Pepsi signs on scoreboards at community centers? We needed the contribution because we hadn’t budgeted for them. It won’t happen again.

And yet, here he, the "Marketing & Business Development Manager," was saying PPR needs corporate sponsorships (read "money") to keep the parks solvent.

The fact is that as a society we are starving what many call The Commons. It is vulnerable to an industry salivating at naming rights opportunities. These public facilities are indeed assets—assets to be taken over by corporate America, as the public and its representatives capitulate. The schools are in the same situation. Witness the Portland schools’ current struggles to extract itself from junk food deals with Coca-Cola.

We really are putting The Commons up for corporate adoption. Sadly the money once available to schools or parks is increasingly going to fight wars or pay war profiteers, or make up for what the super-rich no longer pay—and now spend on private jets and third or fourth homes.

I imagine a day a decade or so from now when our children won’t know that parks facilities or schools or civic stadiums (we had one here once, remember?) are owned by the public. They won’t know that Mommy and Daddy really do pay taxes to keep them running.

At last week’s meeting I suggested to the PPR staff that before they sell off The Commons, they might come to us, the people, to see whether we really want it sold off to commercialism and corporatism. Tell us what it will cost to avoid “corporate adoption” and ask us to pay for it. My guess is we will. At least we should have the choice.

I also suggested that the entire City of Portland, not just Parks and Recreation, needs to have a policy on corporate sponsorships and naming rights. Without that policy what is to prevent the renaming of everything owned by the public. “Viagra” City Hall? “Camels” Waterfront Park? The “Spandex” Morrison Bridge. We could tattoo Nike logos on the commissioners’ foreheads—all for a price.

Finally, I reminded them of a quaint old saying: “Virtue is its own reward.” It is famously reflected on an inscription on the Skidmore Fountain, whose name has not been sold off, yet.

Virtue, in the form of volunteerism and good citizenship, is “the riches of the city.”

Corporations in the naming rights hunt (and, believe me, that hunt is everywhere) might muzzle their marketing departments long enough to embrace the idea of virtue being its own reward. Imagine, giving something simply because it was the right thing to do….

Again public comment will be taken here
through this Friday. Feb. 23. I urge you to write that the selling of naming rights in any part of The Commons should be prohibited in the City of Portland.

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