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."

AT&T's high-minded advertising will not include any "ugly balloons flying over the park or telephones all over the place," Katz continues. During the five years covered by the contract, the company will content itself with the prominent display of its name above the stage and on all tickets and promotional material, including radio, television, and newspaper ads for events. The amphitheater's ushers, too, will wear the AT&T logo. And on July 4 an AT&T marquee, to be built with $100,000 of the company's "grant," is scheduled to begin flashing its messages a few yards south of the sidewalk leading from Biscayne Boulevard to the amphitheater.

The contract also stipulates that AT&T will have no role in scheduling events. But it's certain to have substantial influence over the body that does. The 21 directors of the Bayfront management trust have agreed to let George Hartner know about events at least a month in advance, giving him time to consult his AT&T bosses and express any concern they might have about being associated with, say, a Porno for Pyros concert. "At the most we might cover the AT&T logos on stage," Hartner says. Censorship, he adds, is out of the question.

Still, the contract stipulates that AT&T would be authorized to do more than cover its globes if it finds its criteria for events are being violated on a "consistent basis," a clause that doesn't sit too well with Joe Podgor.

"No amount of money given generously by a corporation to an amphitheater should give that corporation even an indirect influence over events there," Podgor objects. "If AT&T wants to give money over a five-year period, that's great. But to threaten to take it back in the middle smacks less of philanthropy than of pure business. And that has no place in a public park."

Richard Singerman, an independent managing consultant, knows a lot about mixing business with public parks. The man who will be paid $162,500 for helping put the AT&T deal together was hired by the Bayfront trust two years ago to arrange corporate sponsorships for individual events at the amphitheater. "I said to them that, yes, I can find you small sponsors for small events but that my real expertise and my real interest lies in finding you a title sponsor for your amphitheater because I think it's eminently salable and it needs cash both to repair itself and to offer better and more shows," Singerman says, without employing any verbal commas. While Ira Katz points out that corporate sponsorship of public venues is a growing national trend, Singerman was convinced Bayfront would be unique. "We have a special situation here because most of the events are free and community-oriented," he says.

After members of the trust expressed interest in his vision, Singerman, who had just sold his interest in the Virginia Slims tennis tournament in New Orleans, floated the idea to his friends at Phillip Morris, which he describes as a "very classy company." The management trust quickly ruled out sponsorship by a cigarette or beer company, however. "The board of trustees didn't feel that cigarettes or Budweiser would lend themselves to a park visited by 2.5 million kids each year," Katz explains.

Undeterred, Singerman latched onto AT&T, and the trust approved an $800,000 price tag for the sponsorship. But when the deal made its way to the Miami City Commission, several members, led by J.L. Plummer, were determined that if the commission was going to sell out a piece of their park, they were going to get more money. "Plummer made it very clear that he thought this was a million-dollar deal," says AT&T's Hartner. "Usually in contract negotiations you start with a price and negotiate downward. Here it was the other way around."

Even though AT&T agreed to the money, two members of the commission, Miriam Alonso and Mayor Xavier Suarez, voted against the deal last year. Suarez says now that he was concerned about the "significant fee" paid to Singerman. "This is the first time I have seen such a large fee paid to a middleman," Suarez says. "I figured if the vote was negative, we could analyze it and see what rights the individual had to payment."

Having won his fee, Singerman is now looking for another project. "I'd like a crack at finding a corporate sponsor for Miami Arena," he says brightly.

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