Waterfront Toronto Considers Selling Naming Rights to Public Parks, Spaces

(July 8, 2011) Canadians have become accustomed to corporate sponsorship of buildings, the branding of sports stadiums and even the renaming of movie theatres after banks, but now there’s a push to expand the name game to public spaces – including Toronto’s Lake Ontario waterfront.

Waterfront Toronto – a joint agency of the federal, provincial and municipal governments with a 25-year mandate to implement a $17-billion revitalization program – is looking for a consulting firm to help develop a sponsorship program and naming rights strategy.

With only $1.5 billion in seed capital from the various levels of government, Waterfront Toronto’s mandate requires it find ways to pay for the massive revitalization project and to maintain new parks and other facilities, said vice-president of government relations Marisa Piattelli.

“It is incumbent upon the organization to look at fiscal sustainability for the project over the long term, and that’s above and beyond development sales from lands and that kind of thing,” Piattelli said in an interview.

“We have been thinking about doing a property inventory of our assets, looking at other great waterfronts internationally, and how they have leveraged non-governmental sources as revenues for the project.”

Piattelli said naming rights are just one of many strategies Waterfront Toronto would consider as it looks for revenue sources, adding there would be public input both directly from the community and through the three levels of government.

“You’re going to need a lot of people being completely comfortable with the approach, and we are going to have to develop a case for whatever the rationale is in terms of how to do this,” she said.

Lawrence Solomon of the Urban Renaissance Institute said it’s hard to know where to draw the line when corporate sponsorship moves into public buildings and spaces, and suggested people may not be prepared to tolerate, for example, an Enron Courthouse or Loblaw’s City Hall.

Citizens must decide if they want the revenue from corporate sponsorships and naming rights that might prevent local tax hikes, said Solomon.

“I don’t think this should be a decision for governments,” he said. “I think it’s something that should go to a referendum, and let citizens within municipalities decide what their comfort level is.”

Ontario Public Infrastructure Minister David Caplan noted the proposal was in its very early stages, but said corporate sponsorship had helped Chicago revitalize its waterfront and the construction of the “world renowned” Millennium Park.

“We don’t have a lot of experience with it, so I think it’s prudent to take a look at it, to gauge where it would be applicable, what the ground rules would be, is there an appetite for it,” said Caplan.

“I think Waterfront Toronto is moving forward in a cautious and exploratory manner, and I certainly support that.”

Toronto Progressive Conservative Peter Shurman said he thought it was “a great idea,” pointing out that many public hospitals have wings named after large benefactors.

“Why not give these opportunities to organizations that want to publicize themselves by being benefactors and put the money in the public purse,” he said.

But the Ontario New Democrats strongly disagree with Waterfront Toronto’s plan to look for a new naming rights strategy and corporate sponsorship program.

“I think what this represents is the corporatization of what is public space. It would be better if companies just paid their taxes,” said NDP Leader Howard Hampton.

“I think it’s dangerous to have all your public spaces suddenly owned, or named, or monikered by private corporations. It plays into the whole idea that everything is for sale. I think we ought to show greater care and greater consideration of our public spaces.”

The branding exercise has already gone further in the United States, where, for example, you can find a Mattel Children’s Hospital in California and a similar one in Rhode Island branded by Mattel’s rival in the toymaking business, Hasbro.

The debate over corporate naming of public spaces is only starting to heat up in Canada, but there was little public outcry when a Montreal community started looking for corporations to buy naming rights to all sorts of taxpayer-owned facilities.

Suburban Cote St. Luc agreed last fall to sell or lease the naming rights of taxpayer-owned facilities such as the municipal swimming pool, gymnasium, the seniors’ centre, a seniors’ garden and an arena currently named after a former mayor.

Cote St. Luc decided it would not sell naming rights to parks but rather to facilities within the parks. Baseball fields, chalets, a lake and a tobogganing hill can all be sponsored and renamed.

Caplan said other municipalities in Ontario already have the power to decide if corporate naming and sponsorship of public buildings and spaces is appropriate for their community.

The Canadian Press, April 6, 2008 – Commerical Alert

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