July 25th, 2007

State Parks Find a Friend Wearing Silver and Black

By M.S. Enkoji
Sacramento Bee

Oakland Raiders link with foundation that's lining up revenue from private sector.

What do the Oakland Raiders and towering redwoods or spectacular waterfalls have in common?

The professional football team is one of the first private businesses to sign on as a partner with a foundation to promote California’s state parks. The grandeur of state parks will be noted in different ways during games, and in exchange, the team’s familiar logo will grace handout materials given to state park visitors.

It’s the start of a beautiful friendship for the California State Parks Foundation, which is trying to create innovative revenue sources for the park system’s shrinking budget.

But for some, any collaboration with private business is questionable and could launch the kind of commercial flurry that seems to fill every inch and every moment with advertising—from the names of stadiums to an officially designated soft drink.

“It’s understandable to some extent because all these public needs are starved for resources,” said Robert Weissman, managing director for Commercial Alert, the Washington, D.C., nonprofit advertising watchdog group. “There needs to be some zones where we need to be left alone and maybe more than any other site, parks should be commercial free.”

The nonprofit group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader has been instrumental in limiting advertising agreements that would target children while attending school.

The new park effort will never evolve into billboards in state parks, said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation.

“There are incredibly important questions of balance here and we are trying to walk a fine line,” said Goldstein, who has turned away businesses seeking a more aggressive presence in parks.

Unlike sports stadiums and high-profile sports competitions, traditional park names will not be replaced with a corporate name in exchange for millions of dollars, she said.

“This is not about creating an identity in state parks for anyone but state parks,” she said.

The two initial businesses signed up with the foundation will generate wider opportunities to promote state parks to largely untapped audiences—such as football fans, Goldstein said.

The relatively less intrusive nature of the Raiders’ participation serves as the template for future collaborations, she said.

“That’s why it’s so exciting—because we feel they have been very sensitive,” Goldstein said.

Travelocity, the travel agency, is the other business entering a partnership with the foundation. It will offer state-park information and reservation opportunities on its Web site. The company will pay $75,000 annually to the foundation.

The foundation is negotiating with other businesses, Goldstein said.

The value to an advertiser of even the smallest association with something as venerable as a state park system cannot be discounted, said Weissman of Commercial Alert.

The mere appearance of a logo or name on park literature could generate a lot of good will for a business, he said.

His organization has fought efforts such as a computer company’s push to provide computers to children so it can track their Internet habits.

Advertising proliferation in general is causing “pretty widespread disgust,” he said. “People just get tired of it.”

Consumer Alliance brought attention to a Sacramento City Council agreement in 1998 to let a company research marketing possibilities for the city—right down to an official underwear for city police and firefighters.

The boxers vs. briefs idea appears to have fizzled over the years, according to a city spokeswoman.

For state parks, the problem is centered on the budget, said a longtime supporter of state parks, former state Assemblyman Fred Keeley, D-Santa Cruz.

The budget for the state Department of Parks and Recreation, on the decline for 20 years, is largely subject to annual allotments determined by state legislators.

For years, Keeley had proposed stabilizing the state’s park budget by adopting a minimal fee for recording documents, such as when a house sells.

It could have raised an additional $500 million annually to care for all the state’s environmental resources including park upkeep. It’s never gotten on the books.

He praised the foundation’s effort to come up with different ways to raise at least some money, but the trend is troubling, he said.

“It’s going in the wrong direction to fund parks through advertising arrangements with others. It perpetuates a myth that somehow we can have the finest state parks system and not have to pay for it.”

“I don’t think there’s any shortage of any private sector advertisers that would pay to get some of the shine and luster that goes with state parks,” he said.

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