Big bucks riding on Your-Name-Here Park

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By Steve Collins, Metro Ottawa

The Lansdowne Park redevelopment deal goes to yet another vote at city hall this week. The slog toward a final agreement with the Ottawa Sports Entertainment Group continues even as the ground continues to shift beneath the advancing bulldozers.

Little surprises have abounded as the Lansdowne saga has progressed. Last week we learned the city will have to cough up an extra $12 million over and above the more than $200 million already pledged to the partnership. And we learned the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup will not be taking place there in 2014 after all.

Neither of these developments will be a dealbreaker. Our famously frugal mayor is just going to whip out the civic credit card once again to borrow the $12 mil, and we're still on track to host the Women's World Cup in 2015, so the $400,000 we threw at the bid to land the two soccer events won't be a total waste.

Mayor Watson blamed the loss of the event in part on delays from legal challenges by Friends of Lansdowne, the main citizen's group opposed to the plan, and the Lansdowne Park Conservancy, which had a competing vision for the site and never got a serious hearing from the city.

It's probably safe to assume that the Lansdowne plan would have faced a certain degree of resistance from the same NIMBY-prone crowd who in previous decades bought houses near the stadium and then complained about noise and traffic during games and concerts.

But the city's decision to cancel the competitive bidding process and sole-source the deal to OSEG handed critics an unnecessarily generous stockpile of ammunition. Lesson learned, let us hope.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the latest staff report on the Lansdowne Partnership Plan is a huge jump in the claimed value of naming rights — that is, what a corporation will pay to put its logo on the new complex for 30 years — from $15.8 million to a breathtaking $50.2 million.

I leave the reliability of these predictions in such gloomy economic times to better minds than mine, but the discrepancy between the two estimates doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Lansdowne math generally.

For comparison's sake, in Toronto, the Air Canada Centre's corporate christening was priced at $30 million over 20 years, and Rogers Communications paid $25 million to put their name on the Rogers Arena for 10 years, so the new figure may not be entirely off base, but it seems optimistic.

Certainly out of the question is leaving the cash from naming rights, no matter what the final amount, on the table. Here in the home of JetForm Park and the Corel Centre, we understand that corporate branding, no matter how transient, heritage-obscuring or confusing to visiting tourists when the names inevitably change, has become a standard strategy for covering the costs of these venues.

Still there are risks, from ending up with an incongruous or simply goofy name on your arena (Louisville's KFC Yum! Centre comes to mind) to the civic equivalent of getting stuck with a tattoo bearing your ex-girlfriend's name long after the magic is gone (Enron Field, anyone?).

The original naming rights for Lansdowne went to Sir Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, the Fifth Marquess of Lansdowne, Sixth Earl of Kerry, and Canada's governor general from 1883-1888. With such an unwieldy pile of honorifics to work with, we did well to end up with plain old Lansdowne Park.

As for the smaller corporate logos that are to dot the 360,000 square feet of retail space at Lansdowne, few names, apart from Whole Foods, the LCBO and Empire Theatres, are on offer.

The proponents claim other deals have been made, but it's curious that a few tenants can't be brought forward to admit their involvement, and maybe even express some excitement.

Names are serious business. The retail area, for example, isn't being called anything as gauche as a "mall." Instead, it's a "retail village."