Sunday in the Park With AT&T

The corporate giant's sponsorship of Bayfront Amphitheater is great A if you're the type that likes a little brand name with your band name

The grass at Bayfront Park is wet with fresh paint, applied especially for an evening concert at the AT&T Amphitheater. The AT&T marquee on the downtown park's border with Biscayne Boulevard has been announcing the event for a week along with a recommendation that spectators arrive early. One family with foresight has enough time to take a walk along the park's Kodak Ocean Esplanade; the wide view of the bay provides a perfect backdrop for Dad's snapshots of Mom and the kids. After picking up some extra film at a conveniently located Kodak kiosk, they pause for a gulp at the Evian drinking fountains before a stop at the Dow bathroom complex. With a half-hour to spare, the family finds a spot to rest near the Mildred and Claude Pepper Donor's Platinum Club Fountain. They stare vacantly at the circular base, which is emblazoned with the logos of a dozen corporate sponsors.

Minutes before showtime, the family still has not moved. Finally Dad asks the question that weighs on all their advertisement-addled minds A what exactly did they come to this corporate-sponsored park to do?

The scenario is imaginary, of course; Bayfront Park contains no esplanades, bathrooms, or drinking fountains named after corporate giants. At least not yet. But there is an AT&T Amphitheater, and an AT&T marquee is in the works. This past October, the Miami City Commission approved a deal allowing the telecommunications company to call the amphitheater its own in exchange for one million dollars, to be paid over a five-year period. The first installment, $64,500, was used to spruce up the amphitheater and enlarge the backstage area.

George Hartner, an AT&T executive in the company's New Jersey office, makes no effort to hide his glee over the deal. "I review several hundred proposals each year and I immediately recognized that this was unique," says Hartner, AT&T's international event marketer. "Usually we will have to share the spotlight with a lot of other companies, and the event is really the main attraction. In this case, AT&T is part of the main attraction. We took a big risk by doing this, because AT&T has never sponsored an amphitheater before, but with the risk you've also got the reward aspect, which we're seeing now."

And how. The May 14 inauguration of the AT&T Amphitheater was a corporate publicist's fantasy come to life, an evening concert featuring Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, and Nestor Torres, all of whom appeared on a stage bounded by two AT&T logos, the company's familiar globes sliced by blue lines. The brilliance on-stage was rivaled only by a red, blue, and yellow banner above; in case any of the 9000 visitors missed mention of the corporation's name in all the radio and newspaper ads announcing the free concert, the banner reminded them that they were sitting in the "AT&T Amphitheater at Bayfront Park."

Even more than a resounding success, say those who had prepared and promoted it, the gala marked the beginning of a new era for the park.

"The city has put about $35 million into Bayfront Park, but there is not the same amount of public money to maintain it," says Ira Katz, executive director of the Bayfront Park Management Trust. "The facility is not getting any younger. The grass will have to be changed, the walls painted, and the light bulbs replaced. Without an infusion of new money, we just won't be able to operate it at the same level we have in the past. It's better for everyone if private companies will pay for it."

And given the decrease in funding from the city, Katz would seem to be right. Although the City of Miami provided all of the park's operating budget in 1988, this year's figure has dropped to 15.8 percent of the $1.2 million allotment. Next year it will fall again, to twelve percent. "In this environment, corporate sponsorship becomes a necessity," Katz declares. "If Bayfront Park can run entirely on private money, that's good news for the City of Miami."

Some, however, wonder whether the AT&T deal will inspire city officials to give up even more park facilities, content to seek out private corporations to take over the financial burden.

"The problem I see here doesn't lie with AT&T's sponsorship," says Joe Podgor, the executive director of Friends of the Everglades and a staunch critic of Miami's parks policy. "The problem lies with the City of Miami's abandonment of the park system. There is nothing wrong with sponsorship, as long as it supplements public funding of parks. But Miami's politicians have decided that parks are expendable. Their practice of making sponsorship a substitute for public funding is a horrible betrayal of the public's right to a healthy park system. Not to mention the lack of taste involved in turning a public park into one big commercial."

The deal's supporters want to assure doubters that there is no danger of that happening with AT&T; the company is an expert at getting its message across without hucksterism. "AT&T is not too aggressive and is very careful of the way it presents itself, very subtle in the way it approaches potential customers," says Katz, who apparently has watched one too many of the company's heavy-handed long-distance ads on television. "You don't get to be the biggest company in the world without knowing a lot about how to handle public relations."

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