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More Towns Seeking Sponsors, Ads to Balance Books

Boston Globe Correspondent, March 01, 2010

By Megan McKee

Ripping a page from the playbook of professional sports teams, several area communities are looking at offering sponsorships and naming rights for everything from trash trucks to schools.

In Natick, officials have talked to the same company that’s helped the NFL broker deals with corporate sponsors about how to bring clean-up bags for dog owners back to the town common.

“We’re taking a creative approach to this,” said Natick selectman Joshua Ostroff, who heads a committee charged with finding cash for the town, which is facing a $2.6 million deficit next fiscal year.

The committee has talked informally with Chicago-based IEG, LLC which advised the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on how to secure corporate sponsorships. Ostroff said Natick could employ the same strategy for endeavors ranging from public garden maintenance to big-ticket items like playing fields or the gymnasium at a proposed community center.

For some communities, the lure of corporate help, once seen as the province of huge arenas and professional sports - think TD Garden, the Comcast Center, and Gillette Stadium - is an option that can’t be ignored in an era when tax revenues don't match what communities owe their employees, retirees, and vendors.

Like Natick, both Newton and Hopkinton are facing budget deficits in the millions. Hopkinton last summer signed a two-year deal for advertising rights at its high school indoor athletic complex, while Newton will consider sponsorship and naming rights for its new high school within the next couple of months.

“We kind of have to find innovative ways to raise money,” said Kurt Kusiak, chairman of the Newton School Committee. The new Newton North High School is scheduled to open in September, and the nearly $200 million building could hold a treasure trove of naming rights possibilities. Before any decisions are made, said Kusiak, the School Committee must determine which parts of the school are available, and then decide whether to pursue the initiative.

But Kusiak said the committee is open to the idea, especially since preliminary numbers show a $6 million deficit for the school system next year.

“Any way you look at it, it’s not good,” he said.

Two years ago, then-Hopkinton School Committee member David Stoldt, who works in finance and assists start-up companies, did a comprehensive study of advertising and sponsorship options at schools by looking at national case studies. His report, published online, has prompted people from Georgia and North Carolina to call him about his research, which included revenue estimates.

Stoldt estimated the most lucrative school initiative would be bus advertising, which could bring in $24,000 to $48,000 per year, while selling naming rights for things like the high school auditorium would bring in less than $10,000 per year.

But these estimates are unique to Hopkinton, he said, since rates are directly linked to the number of people who view the sponsored items and ads. No matter what, towns and cities probably won't be closing their deficits with million-dollar deals, he said. But by adding numerous small deals, communities can accomplish smaller results such as keeping a half-time teacher’s aide or buying new curriculum materials.

The school system decided that scoreboard advertising was one of the most feasible options. Hopkinton-based Phipps Insurance Agency is now paying $4,000 per year for a sign on the indoor athletic complex's scoreboard, said Stoldt.

Hopkinton was also able to secure multiple private donations for a public playing field, and named the field for one of the biggest donors, EMC Corp. Stoldt said though this type of funding deal isn’t common, it’s doable for many communities.

In Natick, Ostroff said the town would ease into any program it pursues since the town doesn’t have the resources to devote staff or hire expensive consultants to secure the deals. And he stressed that the town isn’t going to be plastered with logos.

The Natick School Committee made sure that plans for a proposed new $89 million high school would include opportunities for private and corporate contributions.

“We are certainly open to direct contributions, sponsorships, naming rights, long-term lease commitments, or donations in-kind of specific needed materials or equipment,” said chairman Dirk Coburn. “Some efforts...are under development or in a ‘quiet phase’ of solicitation.”

On March 30, Natick residents will vote on whether to approve the high school project as well as a $10 million community center.

Bill Chipps, a spokesman for IEG, LLC the sponsorship company contacted by Natick officials, said they've seen a big increase in the number of towns and cities interested in corporate dollars or “municipal marketing,” as the company calls it. He said San Diego has been at the forefront of the movement, and remains a model for other communities.

The city’s website has a section devoted to corporate partnerships, where visitors can see how Cardiac Science is San Diego’s official automatic external defibrillator partner and Pepsi Bottling Group is the official beverage provider. Corporate dollars have brought the city $16 million since 1999, when the program began, according to the website.

In 2005, Medford started running exterior advertisements on its school buses but that lasted only a couple of years, said Superintendent Roy E. Belson.

“It’s such virgin territory that you have to be careful,” said Belson. He said the program brought in about $40,000 to $50,000 per year, but the city dropped it when interest dwindled and officials realized maintaining the program was difficult.

“It’s a lot of work and it’s distracting,” said Belson.

Chipps said one of the biggest difficulties for towns and cities pursuing corporate dollars is selling the idea to residents. And some say there’s good reason.

Josh Golin of Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood said schools should remain devoid of advertising.

“It’s a tragedy that schools are even being put in this position," he said. “Clearly schools recognize that there is a downside to this, because they don't do it in better economic times.”

But he said that’s no excuse for allowing corporate influence in the schools.

“You’re exploiting a captive audience of students,” said Golin. “The purpose of education is to raise critical thinkers...Advertising has been linked to the problems facing kids today, including obesity, materialism, and violence.”

As communities consider corporate dollars, they’ll have to confront these issues head-on. Stoldt said there was opposition in Hopkinton a few years years ago when the idea first came up. But since then, protest has died down.

“I really think we’ve become numb to a lot of the influences of the media,” he said. “People get it.”