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NFTA hopes Metro Rail station naming rights are worth millions

New Era and Coca-Cola spent millions for naming rights at Buffalo’s football and baseball stadiums.

KeyBank ponied big bucks earlier this year to affix its logo to the downtown hockey arena.

But can you imagine boarding Metro Rail at New Era Station at Lafayette Square?

Or Coca-Cola Station at Amherst Street?

Maybe KeyBank Metro Rail line?

That’s the concept the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority envisions as it offers naming rights for its stations and the 6.4 mile rail line in a move intended to raise millions of dollars in new revenue for the transit system. While no company is yet close to lending its name to any of Metro Rail’s surface or underground stations, NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel believes it will happen soon.

And she feels good about returning the new revenue to stations beginning to show their age.

“Our stations are now over 30 years old and looking a little tired and worn,” she said. “This is a way to generate revenue to be put back specifically into those assets, improving the customer experience and the image, and helping us repair and maintain them.

“We think the timing for this is perfect,” she added.

Metro buses and trains have brandished inside and outside advertising in various forms for years. Lamar Advertising last year paid the NFTA almost $1 million for ads in bus shelters, on the sides and inside of buses and trains, and in rail stations.

Transit agencies around the country are now going further. Delegates and visitors riding subways to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last summer became more than familiar with AT&T Station near the city’s sports complex, a deal that will generate $5 million over five years for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority negotiated $4 million in naming rights for its subway station at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. Cleveland hospitals and Cleveland State University will generate $17 million in revenue over 25 years for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

Minkel said the volume of passengers passing through stations every day creates a valuable asset for advertisers.

“When you look at our ridership numbers, you realize this has tremendous visibility and that’s why it has tremendous value,” Minkel said. “It’s no different from the sports world and naming rights on sports arenas.”

[Related: 20 years, 1 building, 4 names: Buffalo's downtown arena]

In Cleveland, the RTA negotiated with major hospitals and Cleveland State for names on their rapid transit “health line” and “Cleveland State” line, according to Joseph A. Calabrese, chief executive officer. The idea was to transcend traditional transit advertising and upgrade the system’s image.

“We asked: Is there a way to do things differently and come up with an upscale brand?” he said. “We thought if you can see names on sports stadiums, why not try to sell names for our assets. It’s been very successful.”

The result has been new paint schemes for many of Cleveland’s rail cars, new revenue to return to the system and an image that works for the authority and its sponsors.

“Working with partners helps our overall image by putting us in good company,” Calabrese said, “and they would not want to partner with us if we didn’t have a good reputation.”

New revenues for the NFTA will upgrade stations worn from thousands of feet tramping through each day, said Thomas George, the NFTA’s director of public transit. New repairs will accompany efforts to fix and replace broken escalators and install new station roofs.

The new station at Fountain Plaza represents the kind of improvements anticipated, he said, as well as the improvements at Lafayette Square Station.

“By the time we’re done, we’ll probably put $60,000 into that station. It will be cleaner, more open and freshly painted,” George said. “That type of small investment pays big dividends.”

More extensive improvements may eventually result, Minkel said, pointing to the new station at Allen/Medical Campus that will soon feature electronic information kiosks and a “grab and go” news stand.

“That opportunity exists for all our underground stations as we generate a revenue stream to make the capital improvements we need,” she said.

The NFTA has hired the Superlative Group of Cleveland as a consultant to sell naming rights and corporate sponsorships. The firm will work with the NFTA through October 2018 at a cost of $240,000 plus a 15 percent commission on sponsorship income to implement the project.

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