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Delaware North is taking heat over Yosemite names

America has a new poster child for corporate greed, and it’s right here in Buffalo: Delaware North Cos.

The Buffalo-based concessions company’s image has been taking a terrible beating over the past 11 days, ever since the National Park Service said it would change some of the iconic names at Yosemite National Park – from the Ahwahnee Hotel to Curry Village – because of a contract dispute over how much those names are worth.

But now that the park service has put Delaware North on the spot, by saying the disputed names will disappear on March 1, the dispute has taken on another element: What price do you put on the damage that’s being done to Delaware North’s good name?

There’s plenty of damage being done.

Because this isn’t business. It’s personal.

“To the general public, the parks aren’t viewed as a business,” said Buffalo public relations executive Philip J. Pantano, president of Pantano Associates.

“Instead, people have an emotional connection to the park,” he said. “The legalese and the business factors get lost in that because that’s where I used to vacation, or that’s where I had a great family trip.”

We got to this point because Delaware North lost the contract it had held since 1993 to operate Yosemite concessions to one of its big rivals, Aramark, beginning March 1. The 15-year contract was a big deal, since the park service estimates that the Yosemite operations will generate between $129 million and $143 million in revenue this year. Over the entire length of the contract, that’s about $2 billion in sales.

But left unsettled in the contract award was the value of the intellectual property – the trademarks, customer lists and other intangibles. That includes the value of trademarks for some of the park’s iconic names, including the name “Yosemite National Park” itself. Delaware North says they’re worth $51.2 million. The park service says it’s $3.5 million.

Delaware North co-CEO Jeremy M. Jacobs told The Buffalo News last week that the company is just vigorously defending its position in a contract dispute. And if it played out in a nearly empty courtroom or across a mahogany table in a lawyer’s office, the disagreement would go largely unnoticed.

But by vowing to change the disputed names, the park service decided to take the disagreement public and try to back Delaware North into a corner by making the company look bad.

It’s working.

Critics have taken to social media to bash Delaware North for trying to cash in on American treasures. “This level of corporate greed is astounding,” tweeted the Sierra Club.

More than 67,000 people had signed one online petition blasting Delaware North. These are some of the comments:

• “If you money-grubbing hoteliers had any respect for history, the public, or Yosemite, you’d back off NOW,” wrote Deane Plaister from Santa Barbara, Calif. “This public pressure is not going to stop, and your business will be shamed and lose customers.”

• “Delaware North – Please stop your bullying,” wrote Susan Train of Truckee, Calif.

• “Delaware North is the Grinch, with its heart many times smaller than normal. This hurts all Americans who own our parks, and does NO ONE any good,” wrote Sally Baur from Columbus, Ohio.

“This issue resonates,” said Mark Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo Law School professor.

“We’re not comfortable in seeing these things trademarked by a private company,” he said. “You can see this giving the park service more leverage.”

Dan Jensen, the retired head of Delaware North’s Yosemite operations, said he’s concerned that the fallout from the name change is giving Delaware North’s image a black eye.

“It’s an easy story to believe that a private business is trying to take advantage of the National Park Service,” he said.

But Jensen, who still does consulting work for Delaware North, said it’s not that simple.

What’s really at stake in the dispute isn’t who owns the Yosemite names and the trademarks. Delaware North isn’t threatening to keep them, and it’s offered to let the park service and Aramark use them for free until the legal battle is settled.

It’s about money.

“What are the names worth? That’s the question,” Jensen said.

The reality is that neither side looks good.

Aramark filed a trademark application on Dec. 9 to use the Yosemite National Park name in combination with a new logo, according to the trademark office’s database.

Aramark withdrew the application on Jan. 13, the day before the park service announced its plan to change the Yosemite names.

How’s that for coincidence?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office initially rejected Delaware North’s application to trademark several Yosemite names, saying the public associates the names with the park service, not the company. It later won several trademarks, but most had limitations. Its “Yosemite National Park” trademark, for instance, isn’t for all uses of the name. It covers the use of the name on coffee mugs, sweatshirts, pens and other gift shop items.

The park service accuses Delaware North of trying to collect the trademarks of iconic properties owned by the federal government, including “Space Shuttle Atlantis” at the Kennedy Space Center, where it also runs the concessions. (Which begs the question: Why are trademarks for national assets awarded so freely?)

For now, it’s Delaware North that’s taking the heat.

It’s a big employer here. It just built a $110 million headquarters and hotel complex at 250 Delaware Ave. The Jacobs family in September donated $30 million to the University at Buffalo medical school.

“A high-profile dispute that tarnishes your reputation could overshadow any good work that you do,” Pantano warns.

For Delaware North, it’s now a question of how badly it will get burned.