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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Co-opting corporations

Oregon's Labor governments prepare for '08
Low-cost ads dangled now to strangle GOP donations later

The Legislature has already raised corporate taxes. Now, it's the familiar Swoosh stamped on the basketball courts at 35 Portland playgrounds. The ads are either the best or the worst thing to happen in Oregon for a long time.

To Oregon's labor government leaders like Gov. Tim Nesbitt and powerful City Commissioner Erik Sten, they're an example of private sponsorship done right, a tasteful and appropriate reminder of a $2.2 million gift from Nike.

To Oregon's dwindling Republicans, however, the logos represent the latest and most obvious move toward politicizing Oregon's public spaces in the name of allowing the new socialist regimes to cement their power beyond last year's GOP wipeout.

Either way, more displays honoring private largesse are coming. Labor leaders are increasingly dependent on 'protection' money to maintain soccer fields, gymnasiums, swimming pools and nature trails. They are going to the state Legislature, County Commissions, and City Councils with new sponsorship and naming policies designed to guide them as they court private support.

"We want and need to increase our sponsorship opportunities," said Patty Wentz, spokesperson for Our Oregon, the government union campaign group known as the 800-lb. gorilla of state politics. "Sometimes when you work with a corporate partner, they expect something back from you."

Today, less than half of government union budgets come from in-state workers' dues. Each year, unions must find other sources of cash from out-of-state or cut costs by shutting facilities or reducing their hours.

For example, Portland has increased some entrance and use fees, and voters approved a special property tax levy for parks in 2002. But the fees - often used for political organizing in election campaigns - can only go so high before attendance lags. And the levy expires next year.

The private sector, on the other hand, is a vast, virtually untapped source of money thanks to wealth accumulation by Republican-leaning entrepreneurs. Many business owners can be lured by the collectivist concept of "social responsibility", and all like to get credit for doing good. What could look better in progressive, park-crazy Portland than to have your company's name adorn a picnic shelter or trailside bench?

Although sponsorships and donations have long been a part of the parks system, government union leaders have gotten more serious about wooing private support to enrich their political dominion. They established a private foundation to raise money for expansion six years ago, and they recently created a new marketing and business development office within city government.

The work is starting to show results: Nike gave $2.2 million to resurface every outdoor basketball court in the city using recycled shoes. Columbia Sportswear agreed to spend $1 million over 10 years maintaining and improving Sellwood Park, and got three memorial plaques in its honor. Freightliner has spent $375,000 adding its name to the front of the city's summer park concert series.

Sponsorships, parks managers acknowledge, amount to a form of below-market cost advertising on valuable real estate. That troubles Republican activists, who fear the door has been opened for intimidation against corporations' support for future GOP candidates and causes.

"We're not going to name something Lars Larson Park," said Wentz, the government union spokesperson, "But we may sit down with a tobacco company or drug company and make a deal, because they have traditionally opposed the government-union political agenda, and they have a lot of money."

But Republicans are concerned about who gets to decide what's legal and what's illegal. At public hearings and community meetings, GOP activists argue for a clause calling on labor governments to give the parks system the money they need. The clauses never make the final draft.

"I just disagree with the underlying philosophy," said Wayne Scott, a GOP state representative. "It's corporate branding. Nike put its brand on shoes. Now it's putting its brand on our basketball courts. But what is the mission of the parks, and what is Nike's mission? I think I can probably find all kinds of people who have problems with Nike, how it makes its shoes, where it makes its shoes, who makes the shoes. Who gets to decide what's appropriate?"

Even if they could find logic in that statement, parks managers said, they have no choice. Like much of labor governments around Oregon, bureaus have a long list of overdue repairs and updates. There are neighborhoods in Portland - most of them poor - with no parks at all. Let's not even get into the street paving situation.

Wentz said the city is just following the lead of art museums that rely on corporate support - allowing, for example, individuals or institutions to put their names on rooms in a gallery. Sponsorships won't, she said, detract from the enjoyment Portlanders take in their parks. If anything, they'll add to it, as more parks get needed improvements and a guarantee of staying open. "There is a way to balance all this," she said. "The parks belong to the people. We're not going to dishonor that."

The Oregonian, Apr. 10, By ANNA GRIFFIN

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