Corporate branding considered for state parks

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By JAY PATRICK

IdahoReporter.com

Idaho State Parks, brought to you by … The North Face? Columbia Sportswear? REI?

With backup cash dwindling and no new income streams in sight, the state might sign a corporate sponsor to stave off park closures.

“We’re trying to get very creative in the way that we survive here,” Nancy Merrill, state Parks and Recreation Department director, told IdahoReporter.com on Monday.

Merrill said department public relations staffers have consulted with a firm specializing in corporate-naming matchmaking and that a sponsorship policy will be presented to the department board in February. Potential partnerships with specific companies have not been discussed and how much money a deal might generate isn’t known, Merrill said. A handful of other states’ parks departments are exploring advertising arrangements with companies, according to the AP. Virginia is negotiating sponsorship with The North Face, while park workers’ uniforms in New Hampshire could soon sport the emblem of a regional outdoor outfitter.

Such is possible here, Merrill said, as is corporate logos slapped on signs, maps, trail markers, playgrounds, and recycle bins. She said she’s wary of a potential backlash to commercialization of parks and that any corporate branding would be done “carefully and modestly.” Corporate names would not be tagged to facilities, she said.

“I think that we have to realize that we have a resource to protect. We don’t want to take away from nature,” she said, adding, “Commercialization is a difficult thing.”

Difficult, but perhaps necessary to maintain the parks system, which counts 30 facilities and about 4 million users per year. The department only avoided closing any parks this year by slashing 25 workers, raising various fees, drawing from reserves and borrowing from a recreation vehicle registration fee account. The moves were a response to Gov. Butch Otter and the Legislature cutting general fund money given to parks from $6 million to $1.4 million per year. The department’s $30.4 million budget for fiscal year 2011 is $8 million less than the year before.

Given the extent of job cuts already made, Merrill said, “we really don’t have any place to go. The only thing we have left to do is to close the least revenue-generating parks.”

Besides corporate sponsorship, the department is considering doing away with $40 annual passes, which require a special effort to purchase, and instead allowing people year-long access by checking a box and paying $5 when they register their vehicles — more revenue has resulted from the switch in other states. Developing a smart phone application that would charge users to access parks information is another idea being batted around.

Said Merrill of the varied offbeat possibilities: “We’re kicking over every stone we can.”

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