The possibilities abound, Cook County officials say, as they look to sell everything from naming rights to advertising at most of its real estate holdings — from the hospitals to forest preserve paths and nature centers to even public areas of the city and suburban courthouses as a means of generating new revenue streams.
In a moribund economy, politicians are loath to raise taxes, and so County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s staff has been looking for new ways to raise money for the cash-strapped county government, whose umbrella encompasses the vast health and hospital system as well as local courts and jails. The forest preserve — a separate taxing district — has been in the black the last few years.
“Clearly we’re in a time of budgetary challenges, and it’s our responsibility to look at all potential revenue streams available to the county,” Preckwinkle, who is out of town, said in a statement. “But the ultimate determination of which assets to market, and how, will rest on whether the sponsorship is suitable and compatible with our mission to serve the public interest. That’s first and foremost.”
That means “no strip clubs” will be advertising at the county jail, one staffer said, noting that sponsors and content will be guarded closely by county officials.
“There’s buildings, stretches of highway — there’s a whole realm of digital marketing [on the county’s website] that we can look at to tap in to,” said Jessey Neves, Preckwinkle’s chief spokeswoman and one of the brains behind the plan. “We could look at naming a bike path, a nature or learning center in the forest preserve,” she said, adding: “There’s a huge universe of possibilities.”
Preckwinkle staffers say it’s unlikely the public will see renamed county buildings, but perhaps public areas on government property that draw a lot of vehicle and foot traffic — and eyeballs — ranging from parking lots and garages to dog parks in the forest preserves.
“We have parking structures that might attract, oh, who knows, the AutoZone or Meineke” Car Care Centers, said Joseph Clary, another Preckwinkle staffer taking the lead on the marketing plan, said during an interview.
“Perhaps a particular site in the hospital could be named for a corporate sponsor or a philanthropic sponsor. Perhaps there’s a good opportunity for some synergy between us and Starbucks — I’m just throwing names out there,” he said.
He points out that the George W. Dunne Cook County Office Building at 69 W. Washington draws 12,000 passersby on a rainy day. Neves said there may be an opportunity, for instance, to put advertising on the arm rests of the escalators leading in and out of the underground walkways.
Preckwinkle’s staff said it doesn’t just stop with advertising and naming rights. Clary points out that vending deals — a la the deal the CTA struck with Red Box whose machines dispense movies and video games at L stops — could be in the cards.
Even though some say we’re in the lagging days of the recession, Clary said that he thinks business will be interested in ponying up.
“We don’t think” it will be an issue “if only because of the nature of some of the assets — the hospital [system] is unique, the forest preserve is unique,” he said, adding: “We expect commercial and philanthropic groups … would be happy to be associated with what we’re doing.”
Right now, Preckwinkle’s office is seeking a company that can help them put together the marketing plan: What will work, what won’t, what’s legal, what’s not.
The county won’t spend a nickel on the deal with the company that’s ultimately hired. Rather, the two sides will be involved in a revenue-sharing plan.
A timeline for getting the program up and running hasn’t been set.
This isn’t the first time local government has looked to use its real estate as a money-making billboard.
In his first budget Mayor Rahm Emanuel counts on $25 million from “municipal marketing” and selling naming rights and sponsorships to buildings, equipment and other assets. But all he’s done so far is form a panel of experts to review individual deals and make sure they’re tasteful and not tacky. Emanuel’s also soliciting ideas for turning city vehicles and buildings into money makers and possibly selling ads on city websites.
And last year, the Chicago Park District started a pilot program to put up advertisements at its lifeguard stations.