Walden Woods for sale? If a proposal currently under consideration in the Massachusetts legislature gains support, the Commonwealth would join the growing list of states and localities looking to offset huge deficits by giving corporate America the chance to sponsor parks, landmarks and buildings.
A number of mayors across the country have considered the idea of putting some of their treasurers out for bid, but Massachusetts would be the first state to pass such a law. Faced with a $3 billion shortfall, Massachusetts legislators are considering offering up naming rights to parks and forests, including Henry David Thoreau’s beloved Walden Woods.
Greg Butts, Arkansas state parks director, said he thinks there’s a place for corporate sponsorships to help cash-starved states, but he thinks naming rights might go too far for "public lands that belong to the people. I have a problem with Walden Pond being turned into ‘Wal-Mart Pond.’ "
But the Massachusetts lawmaker behind the proposal claims that desperate times call for desperate measures.
"It seems to me, should there be parks, information kiosks and all kinds of potential opportunities, let's just talk about them," said Republican state Rep. Bradley Jones Jr., the House minority leader who drafted the measure. "If we weren't in a major budget crisis, people wouldn't necessarily focus their efforts there."
Environmentalists, however, are appalled by the notion of a long-term sponsorship to offset what many hope will be short-term budget deficits.
"It's really a bad joke," said Jim Gomes, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. A bad joke, perhaps, but the bad joke is gaining steam with the Massachusetts House voting last week to develop guidelines to govern the naming of state properties and moving to send the measure to the Senate as part of the budget.
Massachusetts is not alone in hoping that corporations’ deep pockets will help bail them out of the worst fiscal crisis to confront state and local governments in decades. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has considered the idea of corporate sponsorship of city parks. Atlanta, Milwaukee and Sacramento have also given the idea some thought in recent years.
At the federal level, corporations have chipped in for the restoration of the Washington Monument and have sponsored exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution.
"We're at a time when everything is for sale," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an Oregon-based nonprofit group that opposes government sponsorship. "Mayors are willing to put a price tag on anything, no matter what the price on the culture."