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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: SkyRide naming decision shows just how far Spokane will go to monetize parks

Gondola cars reach the top of the cable run from under the Monroe St. bridge back to the station in Riverfront Park last week. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Gondola cars reach the top of the cable run from under the Monroe St. bridge back to the station in Riverfront Park last week. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

If we’re going down this road, let’s go all the way.

The Pawn 1 Swimming Pool.

The Washington Trust Waste-to-Energy Plant.

The Cowles Publishing Clocktower.

The Spokane Police Department, a joint project of the city of Spokane and White Elephant.

On Thursday, the city sold the name of the Riverfront Park Ice Ribbon and SkyRide to a credit union for $90,000 or so a year. Officially, at least, those high-profile attractions in the city’s prized central park will now be called the Numerica Ice Ribbon and SkyRide. In addition to the name itself, the credit union will receive advertising space in the park and on other park promotions.

You might think: Good. More money for the park. What a savvy, entrepreneurial way to support park services!

That’s clearly the view of the Park Board, which celebrated the deal as a way to fund programs and bolster the park budget. I suspect it’s a view that is widely shared. Funding programs and bolstering the park budget are undoubtedly good things, and only a curmudgeon would object, right?

Maybe. I want the park to have robust resources and great amenities, too. The name sale will help with that, and Numerica’s contribution – about $1 million over a decade – is significant. I have no beef with the credit union, per se.

Still, when I heard the news I thought: Ugh. Is everything for sale? Even the names of things? Will the park eventually be peppered with corporate names and logos, all justified by claiming we couldn’t pay for things otherwise? Is every wall and surface merely unrealized “giving opportunity,” to use the jargon of the plan that has been created to attract corporate sponsorships throughout the park?

Is everything in public life going to sink to the tacky level of a college bowl game?

I recognize it’s naïve to even ask. Of course it is. Nationwide, this horse left this barn a long time ago. We see it everywhere, public entities begging corporations to hang their names on amenities that used to be named descriptively, usefully or to honor someone who earned it for reasons other than writing a check.

And the city parks already have a bunch of sponsors helping to support programs, though their names are not, so far, tattooed all over the parks themselves.

The name sale for the ice ribbon and SkyRide was touted last week as the first such naming agreement for the park. Meaning there will likely be others.

The city’s sponsorship plan also specifically identifies the U.S. Pavilion as a “corporate naming opportunity.” So we can look forward to the day when the name of that iconic, definitive structure has been stamped with a branding iron.

In that case, the name sale will also, I’m sure, come with concrete financial benefits for the park and park programs, benefits that will – taken by themselves – make a good argument for selling the name.

But the likelihood of there being even more, and perhaps much more, commercial speech plastered around Riverfront Park is not slim. Park officials are explicitly hoping to get as much sponsorship as possible. They’ve hired a contractor to set prices for “naming assets” and find companies willing to pay those prices, according to their “sponsorship and partnership” plan for the park. The Spokane Parks Foundation is working to find even further such “philanthropic naming and giving opportunities” within the park.

Donations are being “actively sought” for several potential projects, including an additional playground, a dog park, the return of the Expo butterflies and signs.

In each and every case, I’m sure, there is a benefit to the park. In each and every case, I’m sure, the philanthropic naming will help fund the park and expand amenities beyond what the city could do on its own.

And in each and every case, there will be advertising, marketing and branding consideration given in return, all aimed at you, the park user, and in a way that has not been the case before.

Taken in total, the possibilities for a Riverfront Park that is peppered with ads and logos and thank-you plaques is not far-fetched. It’s possible to see each of these sponsorships as positive, while recognizing that the cumulative effect of a bunch of them would be tacky and corrosive – an infringement on the ideal of public space by the already ubiquitous clamor of commercial prerogatives, and a significant change to the park environment itself.

Look, I know this is windmill-tilting. The city is far from the first to take on this approach. Cities, counties and states all over are hustling to sell the names of civic places. Advertising creep is everywhere, and opposition to it is akin to sailing the great ship Futility (sponsored by Zip’s Drive-Ins, home of the Papa Burger) into an overwhelming gale (produced with a contribution from Ziggy’s Building Materials).

I’m not unmindful of the fact that I work in a business, and at a newspaper, where ads have crept into spaces where they formerly were not allowed. This is happening for the same reasons the city might sell the name of the Pavilion: to pay for services that have value for the people who use them.

Still, I want to ask: What’s in a name? Isn’t it more than a price?

And if it’s not, then maybe we’re not going far enough.

We could sell street names – Zip’s Avenue and D Lish Street and Wolffy’s Boulevard. Snowplows could be renamed Rosauers-plows. We might sell wraparound ads for firetrucks. Park trees and potholes could be branded with logos, as giving opportunities for businesses with smaller budgets for philanthropic naming.

The opportunities are vast, but not limitless.

We’ll know we’ve maxed out when we rename the city: Avista, Washington.

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