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Originally published Friday, September 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Private companies as park sponsors? State is already advertising idea

In a bid to rejuvenate Washington state parks, officials are looking to strike a deal with corporate America: give money in return for getting...

Seattle Times staff reporter

In a bid to rejuvenate Washington state parks, officials are looking to strike a deal with corporate America: give money in return for getting the company name in front of park visitors.

State parks managers are crafting a policy to allow private sponsorship at the state's 120 parks, a proposal the Parks and Recreation Commission could vote on Oct. 19. The agency already has begun advertising for potential sponsors.

"Join the fun when Seattle's active urbanites go play in the great outdoors!" reads an ad the parks agency recently ran in a trade magazine for the sponsorship industry.

State officials say it's part of a broader effort to find money for repairs and construction in the cash-strapped parks. The agency faces a $340 million backlog of maintenance work, and it has committed to spend $250 million sprucing up state parks in advance of the park system's 100th birthday in 2013.

It won't mean an invasion of corporate logos and neon billboards in the woods, say state parks officials. It could mean a plaque placed on a building saying a company helped pay for its construction, said Tom Oliva, enterprise coordinator for the commission.

"It would be more like the underwriting that you see on public radio, public television. It's going to be pretty targeted," Oliva said.

Several commissioners and state-parks boosters say if done tastefully, the initiative is a good way to help make up for what the state Legislature won't spend.

"In a perfect world we wouldn't need them [private sponsors]. In a perfect world we would have adequate support from the Legislature," said Joan Thomas, of Seattle, who sits on the seven-person Parks and Recreation Commission and is a past president of the Washington Environmental Council.

But the idea upsets some, who fear it would open the door to commercialization of public lands that are one of the few remaining refuges from advertisements.

Janine Michelsons, a Seattle resident and long-time visitor to state parks, was surprised when she learned of the plan earlier this week. She's not comforted by the promise that park managers will keep things modest.

"I just think this is a bad precedent," she said. "For now it's like a tasteful plaque, but what does that lead to?"

It's not clear what forms the sponsorship might take. In addition to building plaques, Oliva said companies might help pay for advertisements or pamphlets promoting the parks, or sponsor events at state parks.

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The proposed guidelines would set general restrictions on sponsorships. Deals of more than $100,000 would need commission approval, and sponsors promoting alcohol, tobacco, birth control, guns or political issues or candidates would be banned. Detailed regulations would come if the commission OKs the basic rules, Oliva said.

In Washington, state-park forays into private enterprise have had mixed results.

A deal let Coke put vending machines at state parks, but the parks commission didn't renew the agreement because "the return to us wasn't that great," Thomas said.

At St. Edward State Park in Kenmore, a plan to convert a former seminary into a convention center and hotel has triggered opposition. Critics fear the park's peaceful character would be lost.

Citizens can read the proposed guidelines at ftp://ftp.parks.wa.gov/Enterprise/. Comments can be sent to tom.oliva@parks.wa.gov.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

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