Are corporations coming to Minneapolis parks?

The Park Board has started a nine-month process to create a policy on corporate relationships

It’s a beautiful, sunny morning, and you’re really craving a run. You get up early, hop outside and take a turn for Lake Calhoun. After completing the 3.1-mile loop, you want a breather. Maybe grab a cup of coffee, sit at a café table, stare out onto the water.

So you stop at the Starbucks on the beach, a tiny shop that serves all of the chain’s coffee, and sit under a table shade with a small Starbucks logo emblazoned on it.

It’s a relaxing way to start the day.

Of course, in reality, all you can do right now is take the run. Starbucks isn’t by any of the lakes in the Minneapolis parks system. Neither is Caribou Coffee, nor Dunn Bros, nor Dunkin Donuts, nor Dairy Queen.

But one of them might be there some day — or it might not. The Park and Recreation Board currently is attempting to learn its limits, which kinds of corporate partnerships and sponsorships it will accept in the future and which it will refuse to pursue. On July 16, its standards and conduct committee began what’s expected to be a nine-month process to develop an official policy on forming and recognizing corporate relationships.

This comes after years of attempts at corporate sponsorships that have gotten the board into hot water.

A strong public outcry forced the Board in 2002 to reconsider — and ultimately scrap — an attempt to contract with Dairy Queen for operation of concession stands at lakes Calhoun and Harriet.

When Lowe’s, a hardware store chain with no locations within Minneapolis city limits, offered $90,000 to the parks earlier this year, complaints arose quickly after word came that it would require banners proclaiming the corporation’s presence. (Read more about the status of that donation in the Parks Update, page A16.)

And as recently as last month, the Park Board and the city received complaints from constituents about an art exhibition placed on the Stone Arch Bridge, partly because it was viewed as an advertisement for corporate sponsor Red Bull.

While Park Board staff members say they respect people’s hesitation toward a corporate presence in the parks, they’re also working under an ever-tightening budget proliferated by a shrinking supply of tax-dollar funding. Commissioners and staff alike have come to the conclusion corporations are going to have to play a role in the Board’s future.

Two-way street

The Park Board has a history of being helped by large donations. Without them, there might never have been Lake of the Isles Parkway or Linden Hills Boulevard or Dean Parkway. A lot of the land around Lake Harriet was donated.

It might be no surprise, then, that some with the Board put a lot of stock in the benefits of creating a policy that could spur corporate donations. Vice President Mary Merrill Anderson is one of them.

“We’re hoping to revive the spirit of giving to the parks for this current generation,” Merrill Anderson said.

But believing a corporate donation is just that — a representation of the spirit of giving — is a mistake, said David Wilkinson, president of the Wilkinson Group, a leading global marketing agency. In fact, Wilkinson said, it’s not much of a donation at all.

That’s because sponsorship money always originates from a company’s marketing department, he said, and is meant to help the corporation as much as the donation’s recipient. For example, a major soda company might be willing to spend thousands of dollars to help out a school system but won’t if it doesn’t get exclusive vending rights.

“If the public body gets into it as a fundraising venture, it won’t work,” he said.

That makes the public queasy, and not only in Minneapolis. Wilkinson said that of the numerous public body-corporate sponsorship negotiations he’s been a part of, the constituency is always hesitant — often fiercely so.

“The public wants the dollars,” he said, “but they don’t want to pay to get the dollars.”

With its policy development, the Park Board is trying to figure out how to successfully navigate this virtual two-way street with as much public support as possible. It took little time after the Lowe’s pushback for the discussion to appear on its agenda.

It was moved along at a July 16 committee meeting by Walking Minneapolis’ Sarah Harris, who gave a presentation showcasing ways other cities, such as New York City and Chicago, have incorporated corporate presences in their parks.

Harris included images of café-style Starbucks nestled in parks, public buildings with small inscriptions recognizing corporate donors and shops selling city-related merchandise. Logos were all relatively small, while banners, advertising slogans and catch phrases were virtually non-existent.

“The point is that it could be done small and tastefully,” Harris told commissioners.

Setting a policy

There are no specifics yet for what the Park Board will or won’t allow. They’re still at step one, which is figuring out how much parkland would be worth to corporate donors, said Don Siggelkow, the Board’s general manager for administration and development.

Once the valuation work is done — which should be by the end of the month, Siggelkow said —the plan is to hold at least three study sessions. The commissioners, who showed strong support for corporate sponsorships in a survey last year, will be given specific examples of sponsorships and partnerships and will have to decide which forms would be acceptable in Minneapolis, Siggelkow said.

A finalized policy is expected by April. And once it’s approved, the Foundation for Minneapolis Parks, a nonprofit that raises money for the Park Board, will use it as its guideline to find suitable donors.

While the Board will continue to have the option to deny sponsorships — which, if history is any indication, the public could repeatedly ask them to do — Siggelkow said it would be in the best interest of the commissioners not to sway far from its policy.

“They’ll really need to understand how damaging that can be,” he said.