The Name Game

Why stop at selling the naming rights of Veterans Memorial Arena?


When I was a kid, I was shocked when things were renamed.

When the Soviets renamed cities as Stalingrad and Leningrad, or the Vietnamese used the name Ho Chi Minh City, I found it jarring. I couldn't understand what would drive renaming — the need for historical reinvention, perhaps, or a desire to reinforce a new iconography. It seemed inorganic somehow.

I had the same issue with banks. My local Barnett Bank was absorbed by Wachovia, which in turn was absorbed by Wells Fargo. Not that the localist permutation was necessarily better than the behemoth that re-contextualized it, but it seemed more authentic somehow when it was a smaller entity.

The local always is absorbed by the global in the sense of corporate identity. Any hipster startup worth its salt has an eye on the exit strategy: when to cash out, how much to cash out for and, maybe, who to cash out for. Critics carped and caviled when the nihilist website Vice was bought out by Fox. Really, is there much difference between the two?

We are marks for branding, us 21st-century Americans, especially when it comes to our diversions. We want our food stamped "organic," our music from an "indie" imprint, our quasi-subversive literature from a small press. And this extends to our public buildings — we expect them, paradoxically, to exude a sense of purpose. As if it matters if the place where we see a concert or an ice hockey game or whatever is named after anyone important, and memorial or tribute to any concept.

Some are struggling with recent talk from Alan Verlander, Jacksonville's sports and entertainment executive director, of amending the name of Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. He said the idea came up during negotiations between the city and the Jacksonville Jaguars about the EverBank scoreboards. Mayor Alvin Brown said he has no plans to change the name of the arena, said David DeCamp, the mayor's spokesman.

In response to talk of adding a corporate name in 2002, the City Council passed an ordinance that states the arena "shall not bear the name of any individual or company or any other thing as any part of the title, but shall be designated only as ‘Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.'" So for a name change to occur, the City Council would have to approve it.

"If you can't stand up for our troops, then stand in front of them," Owais Ansar of Hala Foods wrote on Facebook.

They believe that any amendment to the name would be a violation of the public trust.

Not among that group, alas, is the aforementioned Verlander.

"We are doing a disservice to the people of Jacksonville if we don't look at every revenue opportunity," Verlander told the Jacksonville Business Journal.

A cynic can look at this situation as being one in which the highly paid Verlander is seeking a line item on his résumé to justify his salary. Not that the city sees the accounting in this quite so transparently, but there's something ironic about a public employee who makes almost $180,000 a year looking at "every revenue opportunity" to offset wages from the public coffers that are just a bit above the poverty line.

I appreciate irony, and I appreciate a lack of sentimentality. In the pursuit of a long-dormant revenue source, I have to give props to this "next level" thinking. Verlander claimed that his office has been inundated with national companies' inquiries.

"Between us and SMG, we can develop and extensive plan to determine the value of what a naming right sponsorship would look like," he said.

How much can the city make? Millions, according to Verlander. That sum is predicated upon such future events as early-round basketball games at the arena during the 2015 NCAA tournament and other events of equal mid-market interest.

If Verlander can get millions of dollars out of that, he's a genius.

If local veterans, veterans' families and military enthusiasts can't understand the logic behind this move, they need to reconsider.

Sure, it sounds nice to pretend that the name is sacrosanct. Does it matter if we call it the "Jacksonville Arena," "Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena," "Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena brought to You by Monsanto and Yum Foods," or even the "Correctional Corporation of America Veterans Memorial Arena"?

It matters when we think about it in the abstract, but when enjoying events there, not so much.

Renaming the arena in pursuit of corporate dollars is brilliant, but why stop there?

Schools in need of renaming, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, could benefit from a pro-active approach. Why not monetize the names of schools also? Anything wrong, say, with Walmart High School? Fidelity Academy? I don't think so. I think we're past the point of pretending there's some high-minded civic discourse and a fixed canonical group of heroes. Or at least we should be.

We could even say the proceeds are going to good causes. Veterans charities or memorials, in the case of the arena. Educational resources, in the case of schools to be renamed.

Or we could just put the money into the pockets of bureaucrats and upper-level staffers.

Whatever works is OK with me. Just as long as the right people get paid.

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