Charlie Tygard insists that Centennial Park will not soon be brought to you by a corporation.
"I understand the sensationalism of saying we're going to put a neon sign for the HCA Parthenon or the Dollar General Parthenon," says the at-large Metro councilman. "That's not going to happen."
Tygard is the sponsor of a bill up for a final vote at the council next month that would amend a long-standing prohibition on advertising in Metro parks and allow for sponsorships. As the legal analysis prepared by council attorney Jon Cooper explains, "Various businesses and organizations from time to time have offered to make a monetary donation or the donation of equipment to the parks department" so long as their name is affixed to something visible. But the rule against advertising — interpreted to prohibit sponsorship as well — has prevented Metro's Parks Department from engaging in such transactions.
Meanwhile, the department has seen its budget shrink as its operating costs have grown. In his remarks before the council last week, Tygard noted that the parks budget today is $4 million less than it was in 2008. Since that time, the city has added new community centers and expanded existing ones while adding miles of greenways and acres of open space, all under the department's purview. In light of this, Cooper's analysis notes, "the Metro parks master plan contemplates the use of corporate sponsorships to support the financial needs of park facilities without relying solely upon public funds."
For now, it doesn't seem as if the names of Nashville's parks and monuments will be available to the highest corporate bidder — at least not with the passage of this bill. Any sponsorship agreement over $25,000 would require specific council approval. What Tygard proposes is a way to offset costs around the edges.
"It does not mean that there will be signs and banners in every foot of open space in our parks," he told the council. "But what it does do is give an innovative way for the city to raise additional funds to support our wonderful parks system."
For instance, he says, citing information from parks director Tommy Lynch (who supports the idea), at one point several years ago taxpayers spent $30,000 in a year to provide dog-waste bags at parks around the city. Parks had been approached, he says, by a vendor of the bags who wanted to contribute to the cost in exchange for putting their logo on the bag dispensers. He suggests to the Scene that perhaps Mars Petcare, based in Williamson County, might be interested in contributing funds to a dog park, if they could put their logo on a fence somewhere.
"I don't think a sign hanging for a dog-food company, personally, is going to offend anyone," Tygard says.
If the council approves the change, the Board of Parks and Recreation would be charged with establishing the particular rules and regulations, including, according to Cooper's analysis, "the types of events and facilities that can be sponsored, the size and number of signs, the use of logos and the types of businesses and products that are not eligible for sponsorship."
"I suspect they're going to be very, very conservative in what they do," Tygard says. "That they don't want to open the floodgates."
At-Large Councilman Ronnie Steine would seem to concur. Speaking to the council, he seemed almost surprised that anyone would be concerned, saying that the parks board has been very protective of the city's parks. He says there's no reason to doubt that it would be in the future.
Tygard's most vocal opponent at last week's meeting was Councilman Bo Mitchell — to no one's surprise. Mitchell is Tygard's most vocal opponent in general, and the two plainly despise each other, although both declined to discuss their feud on the record.
Mitchell says he supports the idea of allowing sponsorship, affirming the increased workload the parks department has faced as its budget has decreased. He asked Tygard to defer the bill, insisting that he didn't want to stop it but rather slow it down to work on some particulars. Tygard refused, and in the end Mitchell was the one loud "No" as the bill was advanced on a voice vote.
Mitchell, who is also serving his first term as a state representative, is primarily concerned that allowing sponsorships would not benefit the city's parks equally. While the final details will be left to the parks board, Tygard did suggest following a model similar to the one used in Charlotte, N.C., including a provision allowing private groups that use the facilities — such as youth sports leagues — to solicit sponsorships, and to use the money they generate. Revenue from sponsorships solicited by the department would go into the Metro General Fund.
The parks and athletic fields used by many such groups, Mitchell says, are the facilities most likely to attract sponsorships. If those groups are then allowed to use the money at those facilities, he explains, good parks will get better, while other parts of the county lacking in public parks and athletic fields will fall further behind.
"The haves continue to have, and the have-nots get even less," Mitchell says.
Others, including Mitchell's fellow double-duty legislator, Councilman and state Rep. Darren Jernigan, raise another concern, this one regarding the understanding that revenue brought in by sponsorships would have to go to Metro's General Fund. In tight times, the funds could be seen as an opportunity to free up money that would've gone to parks and use it elsewhere in the budget — a scenario that would end up as a wash at best for the department.
Tygard acknowledges this potential pitfall. He says he has confidence that the intention of the bill would be honored, although his response might not inspire much of it.
"I'm not sure that legally we can designate that money to go directly to parks," he says. "But there certainly would have to be a gentleman's agreement that if [the parks department] is generating these funds, then it's intended to upgrade and maintain our parks system."