Neighborhood's Name Could Go on Sales Block

From Associated Press

They watched a high-tech company come in and buy the name to old Jack Murphy Stadium.

They sat back as city officials declared Pepsi the official soft drink of San Diego.

But some San Diegans are saying enough is enough to a plan that would sell off the identity of a central neighborhood.

A few blocks from the thriving energy of downtown, East Village is a neighborhood in limbo. Developers have bought up almost all the warehouses and buildings in the area, waiting to build around a ballpark planned for the San Diego Padres.

Ballpark construction, which has been delayed by a series of lawsuits, is expected to begin again soon. In the meantime, city officials are looking for ways to ease the taxpayers' share of the project's $411-million cost.

"It's a question of how can we get the ballpark built. And, at the same time, lessen the burden of the taxpayers," Councilman Brian Maienschein said.

Maienschein has suggested that the city sell the naming rights of East Village, part of a 26-block development around the future ballpark.

City officials, envisioning something like "Qualcomm Village" or "Gateway Park," think they could get a hefty price for the name.

If it works, experts say, it will be the first time a city has ever sold the right to name a neighborhood.

But some residents and community leaders fear that such a move could bring corporate America too close to home.

"This is a very slippery slope," said Leslie Wade, who owns a public relations firm in East Village. "I can't imagine saying that your mother lives in 'Pepsi Village.' "

San Diego, in fact, declared the cola its official soft drink in 1999, agreeing to put it in vending machines on city property.

But some council members are reluctant to go as far as putting a brand name on a neighborhood.

"It's one thing to have a sponsor for a sports stadium," said Councilman Byron Wear, who represents East Village. "When all is said and done, we don't want corporate sponsors to be naming our neighborhoods."

The idea would have to win City Council approval. Maienschein is waiting for construction on the ballpark to resume before he formally presents the proposal.

The city already has been "casually approached" by local companies interested in sponsorship, he said. He would prefer to have the rights bought by a local firm.

"It would have to be a company that has roots here, a place where a lot of San Diegans work," he said.

Potential sponsors could include computer maker Gateway or Qualcomm, the telecommunications company that in 1997 paid $18 million to rename Jack Murphy Stadium. The stadium had been named for a local sportswriter.

The practice of selling naming rights has been a lucrative business for stadium developers. Office products retailer Staples agreed to pay $100 million over 20 years to name the new home of the Los Angeles Lakers. In Phoenix, Bank One is paying $86 million over 30 years to put its name on the Arizona Diamondbacks' new ballpark.

The San Diego Padres, who'll own the naming rights to the ballpark itself, have said little about Maienschein's proposal.

"It's premature," said Bob Vizas, executive vice president for the Padres. "Obviously, you have to get a ballpark built before there can be a ballpark district."

If the idea is successful, it could set a precedent in the world of corporate sponsorship.

"If it works, it will spread like wildfire," said Larry McCarthy, of Seton Hall University's Center for Sport Management.

Maienschein said corporate sponsorship could help improve the community, which he described as a blighted commercial district.

One dissenter is architect Michael Witkin. "I think they'll totally remove the little that is left of East Village," he said. "This is selling off our last piece of dignity."

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