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Another Voice: Naming rights on public spaces come with a cost

By Mark Bartholomew

Last week, The Buffalo News reported that the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority plans to sell naming rights for its rail stations and the rail line as a whole.

NFTA officials pointed to the need for funds to improve outdated equipment. They also cited similar deals already negotiated by transit agencies in big cities like New York and Philadelphia. So what’s the harm?

Agreements to let private businesses place their stamp onto civic infrastructure may sound like free money, but they come with a few not-so-easily quantified price tags.

Once advertisers become a significant funding source for public works, their priorities take on greater importance. (NFTA buses and trains already feature some ads, but the naming of an entire station suggests that it’s the advertiser who is in charge.)

Sometimes a private actor can do a better job than a public one, but we should think long and hard before we agree to make a change and let private interests take center stage.

Second, civic spaces communicate something different than private spaces. They speak to communal, democratic ideals. They are not about individuals in the marketplace but about the political citizenship we all share. The Statue of Liberty or Lincoln Memorial or even Grand Central Station would not mean the same thing if they could double as advertising platforms for life insurance and fast food.

Finally, there’s the need to take note of the overwhelming tide of marketing we already face in our daily lives. From television ad crawls to product proselytizing on social media to new marketing campaigns in national and state parklands, there are few places of non-commercial refuge left anymore.

Sometimes we just need spaces where we are not being sold to, to take a break from the hard sell. Those spaces are becoming fewer and far between.

History should give us a reason to pause here. There have been grand infrastructure projects in this country for decades, yet civic stewards in those earlier times weren’t so willing to let advertising intrude.

It wasn’t that they couldn’t use the money. Instead, there was more of a willingness to draw explicit boundaries between the public and the private.

A particular local example helps drive the point home. Niagara Falls was a commercial canvas in the mid-1800s. A notorious advertisement for the patent medicine St. Jacobs Oil painted on a prominent rock struck visitors as garish and out of keeping with the Falls’ scenic splendor.

The episode helped launch the national parks movement in this country, a movement meant to safeguard America’s unique spaces from commercial intrusion.

We should keep this example in mind when thinking about the “free money” to be had from any potential NFTA naming deal.

Mark Bartholomew is a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

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