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Shoe Logo on a Park? Lake Forest Says It's a Good Fit

Sponsorship: O.C. municipality takes corporate deals to a new level. Some ask: Is anything sacred?

April 14, 2002|TINA BORGATTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They're on lifeguard vehicles and towers, vending machines and beachfront trash cans from Malibu to Point Loma, a nonstop march of corporate logos.

In San Diego, city leaders are willing to slap a corporate emblem on a firefighting helicopter if they can find a company willing to foot the bill for the aircraft and a pilot.

But Lake Forest, a bedroom community in southern Orange County, has taken corporate deals to a new level by naming a city park after a shoe company and giving the manufacturer exclusive use of the public land at certain times.

In exchange for $100,000, Etnies--whose shoes and other clothing are popular with high school students--will get naming rights to parkland adjacent to its corporate headquarters and will be permitted to stage skateboard competitions and film commercials and videos on the property.

To help defray costs that will fall on the city--the park will cost nearly $1 million--Etnies T-shirts are being sold on the Lake Forest Web page and in City Hall.

Councilwoman Marcia Rudolph said she is comfortable forging a partnership with the shoe manufacturer but concedes it begs the question of how far cities should go in selling rights to things that belong to the public. Putting a corporate logo on, say, the city's envisioned senior citizen complex would be too much.

''That's where I would draw the line,'' Rudolph said.

Others have a different take.

''It's commercialism gone gaga,'' USC marketing professor Michael A. Kamins said of the Lake Forest park deal.

The mere suggestion last month of selling naming rights to some of New York City's gardens and parks brought protests, angry letters to the editor and an avalanche of e-mails to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. What next, asked a coalition of community leaders, college professors and others in an open letter to the mayor. Enron Central Park?

A similar proposal in Atlanta died last year from lack of community and government support. In Boston, an effort to sell naming rights to the city's subway tunnels went nowhere.

But in Lake Forest, population 77,182, the naming rights to the city's newest park were handed over to the shoemaker without a wince. For at least 20 years, it will be known as Etnies Skatepark of Lake Forest.

Lake Forest Mayor's Not Worried About the Sale

''We're not Atlanta, and we're not New York City,'' Lake Forest Mayor Richard T. Dixon said. ''This is just a small town where the private [sector] has decided to donate money to this particular skate park. We didn't go to Etnies and say, 'Hey, you guys want to buy the naming rights?'''

Etnies officials aren't worried about a backlash, though the deal is a first for the company.

"If we were some huge, multibillion-dollar corporation that was desperately looking for a way to break into Generation X, then there could have been some backlash," said Piney Kahn, a spokeswoman for the company.

The parkland is a rugged strip of land near the Foothill Transportation Corridor and Lake Forest Drive. The city will spend about $900,000 on the park while Etnies picks up the $100,000 tab for designing a skateboard facility on the property. Whether standard park equipment such as swings and slides will be installed at Etnies Skatepark hasn't been decided.

Although city officials see the deal as a good marriage between public and private interests, it worries Gary Ruskin, executive director of the consumer watchdog group Commercial Alert, which was founded by Ralph Nader in 1988. Ruskin said it smacks of being a ''partial privatization of a public park.''

''Not everything should be for sale,'' Ruskin said.

Capitalizing on public possessions like parks, beaches and even a town's image is not new. The Ralphs Grocery Co. paid $100,000 for naming rights to a skateboard area of San Clemente's Richard T. Steed Memorial Park, named for a local police officer killed in the line of duty. Except for a single sign carrying the grocery chain's name, the company doesn't get any perks, said Steve Mead, San Clemente's recreation manager.

''Lake Forest sold out,'' Mead said, chuckling.

Corporations are aware that they're treading on sensitive ground with naming rights, said Mike Riley, president of Public Enterprise Group, an Orange County-based marketing firm that handles corporate sponsorships for Huntington Beach and other cities. What's off limits in one town might be for sale in another.

''We're out to win loyalty one customer at a time, one community at a time, and we work very carefully with each city to be sure we're tactful in our approach," said Bart Casabona, a spokesman for PepsiCo, an early player in municipal naming rights. Although it's not likely any corporation would want to put its name on city hall right now, there may come a day when the idea isn't so outlandish, Riley said. ''There is an evolution of taste,'' Riley said. ''Thirty years ago, I remember how ludicrous I thought the idea was to wear a clothing label on the outside of my shirt. You see it all the time now.''

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