America's trip down 'Cash Back Discover Blvd.'

Once upon a time, public projects and civic spaces were named after prominent American symbols or heroes: The Golden Gate Bridge. Lindbergh Field. Booker T. Washington High School.

That was then. Today, city officials around the country are considering naming-rights deals for everything from schoolrooms to subway stations to airports, all in an effort to get businesses to help pay the costs of running a city.

It's an expansion of the trend that gave rise to the National Car Rental Center arena, the Wide Track Grand Prix Postgame Show, and a Pepsi logo in outer space.

But this new wave of the corporate name game promises to define how far the trend can go before Americans say they've had enough.

In some cases, cities might find that selling names of urban properties is not the trove they expected, experts say. And no matter how profitable, selling names could end up alienating a population saturated by commercialism.

Supporters say the naming deals, if done judiciously, represent an important financing tool in an era when many worthy projects compete for tax dollars. Sometimes corporate sponsors can give the final push to plans that might otherwise die on drawing board.

But already, the hints of a backlash are emerging, with one Texas state representative forwarding a bill this week to ban corporate names on facilities that receive taxpayer funding. Now, residents of cities from Boston to Monterey, Calif., will decide where to draw the line on Ad Nation.

"Any public edifice that the community regards as part of their culture - as opposed to something commercial - is an area where naming rights probably isn't going to work," says Dean Bonham, head of the Bonham Group in Denver, which studies naming deals.

The proposals touch nearly every area of daily life. Leaders in Baltimore and Chicago have explored the idea of selling the names of public parks. Highway authorities in northern Virginia and Massachusetts are pondering naming deals for roads and roadside rest stops, respectively. And IMAX movie houses in Baltimore and Monterey are hoping to sign up sponsors, as well.

Perhaps the richest area for naming rights, however, is convention centers and malls.

In Atlanta, residents will soon be able to take Cash Back Discover Boulevard to the new Discover Mills Mall. When it opens, the shopping center will offer Discover cardholders access to a VIP lounge, free valet parking, and free delivery of their goodies to their car.

It's these sorts of tie-ins that make naming-rights deals profitable for companies, Mr. Bonham says: "They can offer not only signage, but they can offer something in the way of promotions."

So far, most Americans have shown little resistance to the naming-rights trend, and the Texas bill seems unlikely to go anywhere without strong citizen support. But such disinterestedness may be tested as corporations put a larger fingerprint on public spaces.

Schools in Charlotte, N.C., for instance, have discussed selling the names to classrooms and facilities, and a new high school in Falmouth, Maine, is doing just that to cover a $1 million shortfall. Moreover, an Atlanta city counselor has talked about selling the rights to name Hartsfield Airport.

The most national attention, however, has been focused on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's recent decision to sell the naming rights of four subway stations. The cash-strapped agency won't drop the old names entirely - the new corporate monikers will just be tacked onto the end. But controversy over the plan has already spread.

In San Francisco, with two public-transit agencies, some officials are backing the concept. But Tom Radulovich, director of at the Bay Area Rapid Transit, wants to bar the sale of station names and eliminate "station domination" advertising, where one company covers almost every surface with ads.

"People are paying for the [train] service, and they don't want to have the system sold back to them," says Mr. Radulovich. "There needs to be a division between what is civic and what is commercial."

Tom Bryan couldn't agree more.

The gray-haired resident of Boston's South End has lived here for more than 20 years, and as he peruses the morning paper at Back Bay Station - one of the names up for auction - he calls the naming idea "totally objectionable." Noting that banners for Apple Computers here cover up neon art that was paid for by taxpayers, he adds that it's inappropriate for cities to tamper with public buildings. "They've gone too far."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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