In his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagined a future in which everything corporations sponsored everything in society–including time itself. Numbered years gave way to the “Year of the Whopper,” “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad,” “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar” and so forth. It’s funny on its face, but given government’s increasing reliance on corporate sponsorships, also extremely sarcastic.
There was, of course, no mention of Jest at the Mar. 29 Maui County Council Budget & Finance Committee hearing, but the novel filled my thoughts during the deliberations. That’s because after nearly two hours of testimony and discussion, the committee voted 7-2 to start exploring the possibility of adding concessions and sponsorships to public parks in Maui County.
Considered to be mere “enabling legislation,” the bill–titled “Concessions and Sponsorships in County Parks and Recreation Facilities”–contains no details about any future concession or sponsorship. But it does make it possible for the county Parks Department to begin the “awarding and administering of concessions and sponsorships, including contracts for pouring rights, advertising, vending machines, and parking,” according to the committee meeting agenda. It also allows for “sponsorship agreements” and establishes a fund “for the deposit of all funds received from concessions and sponsorships.” As to who has ultimate responsibility to approve any of these new corporate sponsorships, that would seem to be the County Council itself, Councilmember Don Guzman said during the hearing.
It’s true, as Parks Department Deputy Director Brianne Savage noted during the hearing, that these days, even Maui’s public parks aren’t completely free of corporate influences. Pop-up concessions are legal today sports events. What’s more, youth league sports typically bring along their own sponsorships, in which local businesses pay to outfit the team in exchange for putting their logo on the uniforms.
But the hearing seemed to make clear that the thought that public parks should be free of big corporate advertising and influences and just be places where a person can go and not be a consumer is dead on Maui.
“I’m looking at every single revenue source available to the county under state law,” Committee Chair Riki Hokama said during the hearing, adding that the Council has been talking about park concessions for 20 years. “If we go three to five years on pouring rights [the exclusive right to serve beverages at a venue or facility], there’s a potential for this county to get seven digits.”
“Seven digits.” Hokama kept repeating those words during the hearing like he was some marketing guru. “The county can get seven digits a year in revenue,” Hokama would say. Later, Parks Department Director Ka‘ala Buenconsejo repeated that, saying the county could earn “upwards in the seven-digit range.” Buenconsejo added that his department has already received “numerous calls” from food truck operators around the island interested in park concessions. He said they could charge the trucks “$1,500 to $3,500” for a space at a park like Launiuopoko.
Well, maybe. Buenconsejo’s comments were in response to a question from Councilmember Alika Atay, who had asked if the department had done a feasibility study on the matter. “It all depends on the extent we want to take it to,” Buenconsejo admitted, saying revenue would range from “millions of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars–but close to a million dollars.”
The whole obsession with revenue that was driving the bill made sense–it wasn’t an accident that this was coming up in his Budget & Finance Committee, rather than the Parks, Recreation, Energy and Legal Affairs Committee or even the Policy, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee. Foremost on Hokama’s mind was clearly Mayor Alan Arakawa’s recent proposal for an across-the-board 7.5 percent hike in property taxes.
“This is not intended to replace names,” Hokama said at one point, in reference to the part of the bill that deals with sponsorships and naming rights. “It was never the intent to close off beaches or shut down beaches. Just this–does it make sense for the county to consider concessions? Sister counties make a lot of money on pouring rights.”
Brianne Savage, the deputy Parks Department director, echoed that statement about the near-universality of sponsorships and concessions. “This is really common in other municipalities,” Savage said.
“We don’t want to be like every other municipality in the United States,” Councilmember Kelly King countered. “We’re Maui.”
Of course, Savage was right. Corporate sponsorships are a big deal around the world, and they’re getting bigger. In 2010, Levi Strauss even sponsored an entire city–Braddock, Pennsylvania–as part of a deal that brought the town more than $1 million (click here for a story from The Week on that).
According to this 2016 report from IEG, which tracks corporate sponsorships, total global spending on them rose from $51.1 billion in 2012 to $57.5 billion in 2015. Another organization, NamePlace.com, acts as a facilitator between corporations (which it calls “brands”) and municipalities (“neighborhoods”) in arranging sponsorships.
“Neighborhoods, where soccer games happen, swim competitions take place, evening walks occur and baseball games are played, represent the very definition of community,” NamePlace states on its website. “Now, brands can engage with these audiences. The neighborhoods will decide who to let in, but there is no shortage of high-integrity and high-impact possibilities. We’re not going to replace all the tax revenue lost in the recession. But we’re going to do a lot more than another bake sale ever could.”
For most city and county officials across the country, this is an extremely attractive message. Why raise taxes when you can just plaster corporate logos on scoreboards and bleachers? And really, where’s the harm in allowing Dairy Queen to get a little of that brand engagement at, say, the ball field on Lanai (an actual example used by Guzman during the hearing) if it results in the kids getting a new scoreboard?
As it turned out, King ended up being one of just two councilmembers to oppose the bill (the other was Bob Carroll). Indeed, though Hokama first introduced the bill back in October 2016, I didn’t hear anything about it until Friday, Mar. 24, when King appeared at a Honolulu Civil Beat gathering at UH Maui College and denounced it (as well as the general lack of attention around it).
At one point during the Mar. 29 hearing, King mentioned that the whole naming rights portion of the bill was confusing because “everything that’s already named can’t be changed.” Savage responded that the issue seemed to be nothing more than terminology.
“We’re talking about presenting sponsors,” Savage said. She then gave the following example: Coca-Cola comes to the county and offers $10 million for the Kihei Community Center. The posted sponsorship would then read “Coca-Cola Presents the Kihei Community Center.”
King then told Savage that her example didn’t really make her feel better. In fact, she even said she’d support the bill if the whole sponsorships portion was gone–something Savage said the Parks Department could live with.
But as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary. Seven members voted to approve the entire bill, which included a late amendment from Guzman that added the same naming criteria currently used by the county Public Works Commission to the bill. The bill is now free to proceed to the County Council itself.
Though most of the members of the public who testified on the bill did so under the apparently mistaken belief that the bill would eliminate CORA (Commercial Ocean Recreation Activity) permits–both Councilmember Guzman and Parks Director Buenconsejo stated that the bill does no such thing–Hi-Tech Surf Sports owner Kim Ball did testify against the bill on its merits.
“We would be a prime candidate to bid on a contract, but I oppose this,” said Ball. “Our parks are already maxed-out. The limited space is going to get squeezed even more. Are tourists asking for rentals at our parks? Maui is not Waikiki.”
Photo of Ho`okipa Beach Park: Hawaii Savvy/Flickr