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Jack Knox:Victoria naming rights ... dignity but not much cash

May 01 2012

So much for the Johnson & Johnson Street Bridge.

Might still see the Victoria's Secret Conference Centre, though.

Victoria city council has spent the past couple of months pondering the idea of selling the naming rights to municipal facilities - untold riches for slapping corporate handles on the new bridge, the conference centre, Royal Athletic Park, the Crystal Pool.

But a new staff report throws cold water on the idea, basically saying Victoria is too small, that only big-city sports venues see much revenue.

"Staff expect that the Victoria Conference Centre is the only lucrative venue for naming rights within the city," the report says. It recommends hiring a broker to pursue such a deal.

But other than that, it doubts it's even worth staff time to build a detailed policy.

Council's governance and priorities committee will debate the issue Thursday.

The staff report echoes the findings of a UVic geography professor, Reuben Rose-Redwood, whose research leads him to believe council has been "perhaps a bit over-optimistic" - a nice way of saying that there's little money in, say, Crown Royal Athletic Park.

Indeed, Rose-Redwood thinks so little of the idea that he has launched an online petition against it.

"By viewing public place names strictly in terms of their cash value, this sends a message to residents and visitors alike that the symbolic identity of the city is up for sale," it states.

"Instead of naming places in honour of those individuals or groups who played a significant role in Victoria's history, the proposed naming rights policy reduces public place names to 'commodities' that can be bought and sold, which has the effect of cheapening their symbolic value."

Rose-Redwood and his fellow researchers studied the experience of Winnipeg, which in 2007 launched a sponsorship program of which the sale of naming rights was to be the centrepiece.

The response to Sponsor Winnipeg was underwhelming. The Manitoba capital signed a few deals - including one in which the Winnipeg Sun paid for a monopoly on newspaper boxes near bus stops - but it wasn't until last year that the first naming-rights agreement was reached: $25,000 to name a library room after two families, one of which owns the company that owns the library building.

A second deal saw a realestate agent agree to pay $30,000 over five years to slap his name on what is now the Tod Niblock Baseball Diamond at the Southdale Community Centre. A $300,000, five-year agreement saw the Sage Creek real estate development name tacked onto the rink at the same complex.

"If you add all that up, it only comes to $355,000," ose-Redwood says.

There's a lesson for Victoria there, he says. "The economic rationale isn't supported by the Winnipeg experience."

The obvious question is: how much is enough?

"Where do we draw the line?" Rose-Redwood asks. "Is Beacon Hill Park up for the right price, or is it important to retain that name?"

"The argument can be made that it cheapens the value of a place while not really generating much revenue."

It all sounds reminiscent of the old joke about a man offering a woman $1 million to sleep with him. "Sure," she says. "How about $5?" he replies. "Of course not, what do you take me for?" she bridles.

"We've established that," he says. "Now we're just haggling over the price." On the other hand, every sponsorship dollar earned is a tax dollar saved. Christy Clark might have rejected Telus's offer of $35 million over 20 years for the rights to B.C. Place, but Victoria was happy to get $1.25 million over 10 when SaveOnFoods Memorial Centre was named in 2004.

Sponsors themselves will argue that they're investing in the community. Langford was pleased to get $20,000 a year for Westhills Arena and $25,000 for Bear Mountain stadium. Bear Mountain is also paying $250,000 over 10 years for the rights to the rink at the Juan de Fuca rec complex.

As for the Victoria Conference Centre, we'll have to see. Note that city council rejected selling that name in 2010, reasoning that "Victoria" is itself a brand worth preserving in the tourism world. jknox@timescolonist.com

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