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Signage to change over as Yosemite dispute continues amid Delaware North suit

Work crews starting Tuesday are poised to put up temporary signs, modified signs and sign coverings throughout Yosemite National Park to reflect the new names assigned to some of the busy California park’s most popular attractions.

The changes come as a bitter dispute among the National Park Service, outgoing concessionaire Delaware North, of Buffalo, and the incoming vendor Aramark shows no sign of easing.

Delaware North, the locally based hospitality and tourism giant, will leave Yosemite on Tuesday after holding the concessions contract at the park since 1993. Last fall, Delaware North filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the Park Service, which responded in January that the legal dispute was forcing it to rename the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and other well-liked park venues.

“That is still on schedule,” Scott Gediman, a Park Service spokesman based at Yosemite, said late last week. “These are changes that are going into effect until further notice.”

Delaware North insists that the name changes are unnecessary. In its latest move, over the weekend, the company revealed its offer to transfer ownership of the assets in question, including the names of the attractions, to Aramark while the court case continues. The parties would work out the amount of compensation Delaware North believes that it is due later, according to a letter a top company official sent to his counterpart at Aramark.

Aramark rejected the offer in a statement Sunday, saying “it is a meaningless offer and changes nothing” and, instead, urged Delaware North to drop its lawsuit.

Barring a last-minute settlement that so far appears unlikely, Yosemite visitors beginning Tuesday will see new names on restaurant menus, directional signs, gift shop tchotchkes and the park’s website as Aramark takes over the national park system’s most lucrative concessions contract, a development that has roiled Californians and other fans of the park.

“There are names for the kinds of companies that try to pull stunts like this on a good state’s good people. But we won’t print them,” the Sacramento Bee said in a sharply worded editorial last week that pins the blame squarely on Delaware North.

Officials with the Park Service and Aramark said preparations for the pending handover from Delaware North to Aramark were going well.

They started last June, when the Park Service selected Aramark over Delaware North for the new contract, worth up to $2 billion over 15 years, to operate hotels, restaurants, stores and other services in Yosemite.

Delaware North, which is leaving Yosemite after 23 years, filed suit in September, contending that the Park Service should have required Aramark to purchase the names of park attractions and other intangible assets from Delaware North, as the Buffalo-based company was obligated to do when it first took charge of park concessions. They include trademarked slogans such as “Go Climb a Rock,” a customer database and intellectual property such as the names of the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village and Badger Pass Ski Area.

The Park Service, in its response, said Delaware North placed a “grossly exaggerated” value on the intellectual property. Delaware North puts the value at $51 million, while the Park Service puts the value at $3.5 million, according to court filings.

In January, the Park Service ratcheted up public pressure on Delaware North when it announced that it would change the names on the trademarked properties while the court case lingered. The move sparked considerable public ire, notably within the Golden State, against Delaware North.

Company officials say they don’t want to see the names of the venues changed, and they have offered to grant the Park Service a license to continue to use the names of the attractions, royalty-free, after Tuesday. “No matter what the motivation, it’s not fair that the NPS has created a public controversy around Yosemite’s iconic names as a substitute for resolving long-standing, public and legitimate contract issues,” Delaware North said in a statement Friday.

That was followed by their latest offer, revealed over the weekend, to assign the trademarks to Aramark.

Mark Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo law professor who teaches about trademark law and has studied the park system’s history, said the initial offer to license the trademarks would allow Delaware North to retain ownership of them, while the new offer would grant ownership of the trademarks to Aramark, while letting the Buffalo company retain its rights to be paid a fair value as determined by the parties or the courts at a later date.

“I think it’s a significant concession,” Bartholomew said in an email Sunday, adding that he thinks Delaware North “sees this assignment to Aramark as a worthwhile strategy to keep their marks in circulation so they retain their value, giving them hope that they can still extract a high price for them from Aramark down the road as this litigation continues.”

It remains to be seen whether this offer will stave off Tuesday’s rebranding at the park.

The Park Service estimates that it will cost as much as $1 million to change directional signs around the park, print new guidebooks, make changes to the park’s website and other adjustments required by the name changes, a figure provided by a consultant, Gediman said. “We’re going to be doing the best we can,” he told The Buffalo News.

Aramark, the new concessionaire, must make its own changes to signs outside the park venues that it will begin to operate, as well as items large and small within the park attractions.

David Freireich, an Aramark spokesman, said the company began working with vendors to produce items with the new names after the Park Service announced plans for the name change. Freireich and Gediman said that many of the signs outside the venue, including a large, wooden sign that towers over the entrance to Curry Village, will be temporarily covered with the new names of the venues starting Tuesday. Permanent replacement signs won’t be set up until later in the summer or fall, Freireich said.

Is the use of temporary sign coverings an indication that a settlement just before, or soon after, Tuesday’s deadline could leave in place or swiftly return the venues’ long-standing names?

Representatives for the Park Service and Aramark declined to say whether they are in discussions with Delaware North on a last-minute resolution.

“That would be pure speculation on our part. We’re kind of following NPS’ lead on this,” Freireich said in an interview Friday. “We’re talking to Delaware North about a number of topics related to the transition. I would say right now we are planning to proceed with the name change.”

Aramark and the Park Service said they are concerned about confusion among guests who have booked reservations at the attractions whose names are changing and among future visitors to the park, at least in the short term.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time for guests, and even for employees, to get comfortable with the new names,” Freireich said.

The Park Service and Aramark said they are hoping for a smooth transition beginning Tuesday, and the company said that it has worked feverishly since the summer to get ready to take over the Yosemite contract.

The park has about 1,100 workers this time of year, and Freireich said that at least 95 percent of the current Delaware North employees at Yosemite will stay over to join Aramark.

“There needs to be continuity in the workforce,” he said. “The front-line associates are the face of the operation.”

email: swatson@buffnews.com