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Jax Daily Record Friday, Sep. 19, 200312:00 PM EST

City pursuing venue naming rights

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by: Bradley Parsons

by Bradley Parsons

Staff Writer

Corporate sponsorship of public buildings has become an increasingly popular revenue stream for cities looking to bolster their funds in an era of tight budgets and shrinking state support. Jacksonville taxpayers have spent millions to produce an array of red-bricked structures ranging from a library to a ballpark. By putting the right companies name on those buildings, the City hopes taxpayers will foot less of the bill for their upkeep.

Interim Chief Operating Officer Lynn Westbrook said the City is actively seeking sponsorship only for the $25 million Equestrian Center. A City ordinance prevents sponsor’s names from appearing on the Jacksonville Veteran’s Memorial Arena and the Main Library, and Westbrook said corporate sponsorship just doesn’t mix with the planned County Courthouse.

“Sponsorship for the courthouse? I wouldn’t touch that one with a million foot pole,” said Westbrook.

For now, the City has focused on the Equestrian Center. Westbrook said SMG, property manager for the Equestrian Center, arena and the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, is looking for a fitting company name to hang on the $25 million recreation complex’s door. Like the City’s approximate $700,000 deal with Alltel, Westbrook said sponsorship revenue would help pay for the property’s operating costs.

“We know early on, the City will have to subsidize some of the start-up costs,” said Westbrook speaking of the Equestrian Center. “Anything we could get to offset those expenses would be welcome.”

SMG general manager Bob Downey said he is pursuing similar deals for both the Equestrian Center and the ballpark. He said prospects for finding an Equestrian Center sponsor were “very mildly promising,” but that no strong suitor had emerged for either of the properties.

Better Jacksonville Plan project manager David Schneider told Westbrook in an e-mail that he had been informally told the Equestrian Center’s naming rights could fetch $100,000 a year for 10 years. Downey said the value for the complex would be closer to $300,000 in years past, but said the faltering economy had driven many potential sponsors out of the market.

“Money was a little freer when the economy was hotter,” said Downey. “That $300,000 range is probably a little bit of a high number now for Jacksonville.

“Two years ago might have been the ideal time to find a sponsor, but, then again we might have sold it to somebody that went out of business,” said Downey, pointing to Enron’s deal with the Houston Astros as an example.

Whatever the Equestrian Center returns, Downey said the ballpark would probably get a similar number. The ballpark might get more, Downey said, if it didn’t sit in Alltel’s shadow. Because Alltel’s name is broadcast weekly — except when blacked out — across national networks, Downey said potential sponsors for the ballpark, or the sports complex as a whole, were hesitant to commit. The fear of being overwhelmed by Alltel has cooled interest in the rest of the complex.

Which isn’t to say SMG hasn’t had interest. However, Downey said the City instructed him not to undervalue its properties just to get a deal done. He said he wanted to find the right partner for the City; that’s a partner that wants to be active in the property and one that will pay “a reasonable amount.”

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