Rob Ford’s executive committee approved a city naming rights policy Tuesday that critics fear will turn Toronto’s public space into an advertising free-for-all.
The city already has the ability to auction off naming rights to city property and events, but the new policy standardizes the process and will see the municipal government take an active role in soliciting cash from outside parties in exchange for the right to rebrand public assets.
Jayme Turney of the Toronto Public Space Initiative addressed the executive Tuesday morning and urged councillors to reject the policy, arguing that there is already too much advertising in Toronto’s public spaces. He warned that the new guidelines will turn the city into a “Wild West” of advertising.
“This policy goes along with the trend of an out of control, aggressive outdoor advertising industry” in Toronto, he said, citing the increasing number of digital billboards and illegal ads projected onto the sides of buildings.
City properties that already bear corporate names include the Saturn Playground, Franklin Children’s Garden, and the Sony Theatre.
But supporters of the policy like Councillor Michael Thompson, who sits on the executive committee, argue that naming rights are a source of revenue ripe for the picking in a city facing a significant budget shortfall.
“This isn’t new ground for us here in Toronto, what we’re doing is formalizing a policy,” said Thompson, whose ward has several athletic facilities sponsored by outside parties. “There are great opportunities for us in terms of generating sponsorship and naming opportunities.”
It’s not known how much money the city could generate by selling off naming rights.
City staff say the policy has sufficient safeguards to make sure that Toronto doesn’t become oversaturated with ads. The guidelines state that any sale of naming rights has to be approved by city council and that the rights to certain properties, including city hall, community council sites, and Union Station will not be auctioned off. But the names of public parks would
also not be up for grabs, but be up for grabs, and corporations might also be able to brand elements of parks, like playgrounds.
The policy states that property names with historic or community significance would be sold only in exceptional circumstances, and only after consultation with the local councillor and residents. It’s still unclear exactly which properties would be deemed historically significant, but city staff has been directed to compile a list of public assets whose names are eligible for sale.
Tuesday’s executive vote did not affect the TTC, which already sold off its naming rights in a controversial deal with Pattison Advertising earlier this summer.
While Ford’s allies on council led the charge for the naming rights policy, even the mayor’s opponents don’t appear to have the political will to try to block it completely. Councillors Adam Vaughan, Janet Davis, Shelley Carroll, and Joe Mihevc sat in on the meeting and voiced several concerns, but none suggested scrapping the idea altogether.
“We have to venture down this road, but I think we have to venture down this road with tremendous care and sensitivity,” said Mihevc. He urged the committee to delay endorsing the policy in order to allow time for a public meeting on the issue, but the executive decided no delay was necessary.
In the same vote, the committee also approved similar guidelines for corporate sponsorships as well as a policy for naming streets and other assets to honour deceased individuals. Under those guidelines, honourific names would be awarded only for people who have been deceased for at least two years, unless otherwise approved by council. The policy could have an effect on efforts to name city property after the late Jack Layton.
After the vote, Toronto Public Space Initiative’s Jayme Turney vowed to continue fighting against the naming rights policy, which will go before city council for final approval on November 29. He said his group plans to launch a guerilla art campaign to plaster public space with corporate logos in order to illustrate the dangers of allowing corporations access to city property.