Lawrence City Commission to consider naming rights for parks, other facilities

Lawrence resident and University of Kansas distinguished professor emeritus Po-Lung Yu performs stretching exercises on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 at Sports Pavilion Lawrence. Lawrence city staff is working on a policy to address the naming rights of parks and recreation facilities.

Getting the name of a private citizen or business on City of Lawrence property could soon be done with the signing of a check.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department has a lot of assets to maintain — recreation centers, swimming pools and even a golf course — and a proposed sponsorship policy that would usher in some new ways of paying the bills.

City Manager Tom Markus said sponsorships can help support operating and maintenance costs, such as replacing playground equipment, exercise machines or gym floors, that cities don’t always keep in mind when they decide to build facilities.

“Actually keeping the facility up to date and keeping it attractive for the user, there is a cost associated with that,” Markus said. “People tend to put the facilities in and then they forget about them.”

The City Commission will be the one to decide the extent of those sponsorships. Funds from sponsorships could support one-time programs, or go toward specific items. That could mean sponsors could show up on pavers, benches, park shelters, scoreboards, banners, and, potentially, be incorporated into the names of city parks or recreation centers.

However, some local leaders are hesitant. Mayor Leslie Soden said she is opposed to taking sponsorship as far as naming rights or even permanent banners for parks and facilities.

“I don’t’ think that the bigger exterior type of signs, the more permanent ones, are appropriate,” Soden said. “It just looks like we put our city up for auction.”

A draft of the new sponsorship policy outlines how the city could solicit donations from residents and business to back Parks and Recreation Department programs and facilities, and a public meeting will be held Monday to get community input.

Once input is gathered, city commissioners will review, amend and approve the policy. Among other things, the policy will lay out which circumstances will require City Commission approval, as well as which facilities or programs, if any, will be barred from sponsorship or naming rights.

Drawing a line

The Parks and Recreation Department maintains 54 parks, a citywide trail system, four recreation centers, two aquatic centers, a nature center, a golf course, and offers hundreds of programs, classes and camps annually.

Where a line would be drawn that prohibited certain facilities or services from sponsorships is yet to be determined.

The draft policy written by city staff includes a section for such prohibitions, but contains only the words “to be named,” so as to leave that part of the policy to city commissioners.

Commissioner Mike Amyx said he didn’t have a problem with smaller features such as park shelters or benches, but that he’s against changing the names of prominent parks in the city.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of looking at any of our signature parks, of ever allowing that to happen,” Amyx said. “I think that would be absolutely wrong. I think those are just near and dear to the greatest majority of citizens in this community.”

Soden also said she is OK with program sponsorships and donations for smaller features, but that she is opposed to naming rights under any circumstances. She said permanent and prominent naming sends the wrong message.

“I don’t want us to send the message that our facilities are for sale when it comes to large advertising,” Soden said. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate message to send out.”

Soden said she thought other budgetary measure should be considered first.

“I think that if Parks and Rec is looking for that extreme of sponsorship, I think we really need to look at their budget and see what else we can do to help them fund their facilities and operations rather than selling off naming rights to buildings.”

Potential for conflict

The intersection of private dollars and public services presents the potential for conflict, and the draft policy attempts to curtail conflicts of interest.

The draft requires that donations must be for a specific facility or service, essentially avoiding unattached donations. The draft also states that the city won’t seek or accept sponsors that take positions inconsistent with city policies or positions, and that a sponsorship doesn’t constitute an endorsement by the city.

The importance of public trust is highlighted in the introduction to the policy, and one provision maintains that every offer of sponsorship should be evaluated for possible conflicts of interest. Soden said she thinks that section will be another that requires further consideration by the commission.

“That’s definitely something that I think that the policy is going to address,” Soden said.

Not unprecedented

But it’s not to say the city is in completely uncharted territory. Markus pointed out that public universities have a long history of using donations and naming rights to fund facilities.

“You go out on different campuses and major buildings are named after major benefactors who have contributed millions for schools of business, schools of law, medical facilities, things like that,” Markus said.

In addition, some sponsorships in Lawrence are already underway, the most prominent of which is a seven-year, $50,000 sponsorship by Lawrence Memorial Hospital at the city’s newest recreation center, Sports Pavilion Lawrence.

Last year, revenue from sponsorships and donations for the Parks and Recreation Department totaled about $115,000, which includes revenue from various ads in the department’s activities guide.

Amyx said he views sponsorships as a way to manage operational costs.

“As we look at the effects on our budget over time, I think that we’re going to be looking at ways to help with operational funds on various things, and maybe that’s the best way to look at sponsorship,” Amyx said.

Who makes the call

As currently written, the policy dictates that a proposed sponsorship will require different levels of review and approval depending on the amount and length of the sponsorship.

At the top level is City Commission approval, which would be required for sponsorships that would generate $25,000 or more for the city or last for more than five years.

The city manager would have the authority to make sponsorship decisions up to five years and between $15,000 and $25,000 per year. All other sponsorship decisions would require at least the review of the Parks and Recreation Department director, but could be referred to the city manager.

As far as parameters for naming rights, Markus said he understood the concerns of commercialization, especially with facilities funded largely by taxpayer dollars. He said the commission could decide on a certain threshold that guarantees some level of naming right, or make all naming decisions the discretion of the commission. He said he favored making it the commission’s decision.

“I don’t really want to create necessarily a hard-line policy where you automatically get (naming rights) once you pass the threshold,” Markus said. “I think it has to be somewhat contextualized to what’s going on at the time and whether you really want to do that.”

A combined effort

A sponsorship policy would support other existing revenue sources for the Parks and Recreation Department, such as taxes and fees.

The department currently does not charge entrance fees for its recreation centers, but does charge fees for programming and classes. To help with accessibility, the department subsidizes a significant portion of the cost of several programs, such as programming for seniors, entrance to the city’s aquatic centers and programming at the Prairie Park Nature Center.

The department is preparing to re-evaluate its fee structure, and its budget will likely get more scrutiny in the process.

Markus said sponsorships can bring in another source of revenue that isn’t property tax, sales tax or user fees.

“When they say we’ve got taxes that pay for all that, well, then, who is paying those taxes?” Markus said. “Usually I try to look at those things in a more balanced way and maybe split the cost (among) more than a few sources so you can create a more equitable financial arrangement.”

The City of Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department’s Advisory Board will hold a public meeting Monday to discuss the proposed policy on sponsorships. The meeting will be held 6 p.m. Monday at the Union Pacific Depot, 402 N. Second St. An online survey will also be available on Lawrence Listens.