The idea of selling naming rights for transit stations, public parks and other things hit the news again this week, and received the hearty endorsement of the Ford brothers:
Next stop: Spadina-McDonalds station.
“Whatever. If it brings in revenue, I honestly don’t believe anyone cares,” Councillor Doug Ford quipped Tuesday afternoon.
The Toronto Standard has blessed us with two good articles on the issue. The first, by Tabatha Southey, takes the idea to its logical extreme and imagines a Toronto where everything is named after something corporate:
Ten years ago, in 2015, most of us in Toronto and Firkin accepted the suggestion that we attempt to “build relationships” with the private sector with good grace. The motion passed at the somewhat expanded Pizza Pizza City Council 967 to 11, with 11 abstaining, as every motion must now pass in order for the heat to stay on in Telecity Hall through the winter, if you take my meaning.
Ivor Tossell, being a bit contrarian, penned a follow-up, which essentially reminds us that we have to name our roads, parks, subway stations and buildings after something, so maybe this isn’t a big deal.
And I agree, mostly, that it doesn’t have to be a big deal. I don’t think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Nuit Blanche is a lesser cultural event because it’s called Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. These sorts of sponsorship arrangements, at the very least, support events that likely wouldn’t receive enough government support to survive on their own.
So, yes, there’s nothing wrong in principle at looking at the idea of naming rights as a way to offset construction or management costs. But I did have a few objections to the tenor of the discussion regarding naming rights this week.
First, there’s this idea that naming rights represent a massive pool of untapped revenues. This is unlikely to be true. Steve Munro points out that our crumbling subway stations might not appeal much to image-conscious corporations. It’s also hard to imagine much value coming from renaming a park — how many local parks can you recall the names of, off the top of your head?
Which brings me to my second objection, which is a matter of standards. From all the comments in the media this week, it’s clear that everyone believes certain things are off-limits for renaming. “We’re not going to call it Doritos City Hall,” Doug Ford assured the National Post. But why not? Can anyone define why some city-owned properties are up for renaming and others aren’t? What’s the differentiating factor? Is it heritage? Political importance? Tourism and culture? A gut feeling?
This goes for revenue standards too. Obviously there’s a point at which the revenue from naming rights is too small to be worthwhile. If Company X offers us $5,000/year for naming rights to Spadina subway station, we’d rightly dismiss the offer out of hand. But, again, why? No one seems to have any clue what fair value for naming rights is.
We’re working blind here. We don’t know what’s on the table and what the value of the table is. If, at the very least, this debate can help define a concrete policy for the sale of naming rights, it will have been somewhat worthwhile.
Lastly, and most critically, what corporations would be after with so-called “naming rights” for transit stations — not to mention other pieces of infrastructure — could very well go beyond slapping their name and logo on a TTC sign. Would they be looking for permission to use the transit station as a showroom or glorified retail space? Would people be okay with vendors trying to process riders’ credit card applications at platform level?
Much of this probably sounds like needless panic at this point, but the city has a sad history of brokering bad deals with the private sector. The street furniture contract with Astral Communications is a sad example of the city willingly getting screwed by a private partner. They got free advertising on city streets, where we got free garbage cans that don’t work very well. (Sometimes they catch on fire.)