Naming rights idea good for joke, not much else

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Print this page by Robert Powell

From the moment it was issued, the news release seemed to have the words “kick me” on it.

Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed selling naming rights for Virginia bridges, interchanges and highways as a way to generate money for road maintenance.
The jokes started pouring in almost immediately.

“Ever driven over the Northrop Grumman Bridge? Or passed through the Booz Allen Hamilton Interchange? Or breezed down the Capital One Highway?” asked Michael Neibauer of the Washington Business Journal.

“In Virginia, the road to a pothole-free ride may be over the Big Mac Bridge,” chortled the Los Angeles Times.

“If Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has his way, you could soon take Wawa Road over the Walgreens Bridge past the Waffle House Interchange to get to Washington,” said The Huffington Post.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page offered a Mapquest-style set of directions for getting from the Chesterfield County Government Complex to the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington by way of the Try New and Improved Charmin, It’s EXTRA CUSHY for Your TUSHY Highway.

Fortunately, the late-night TV comics were too occupied with the latest foibles of the Republican presidential candidates to join the party. That situation, of course, could change if McDonnell becomes a serious contender for the Republican vice presidential nomination.

“Oh, did you hear that Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia might join the Republican ticket?” I can hear Jay Leno saying. “I guess we should have seen that coming when he changed the name of Charlottesville to Romneyville.”

I thought McDonnell’s ambition was to make Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast, not the principality of punch lines.
I have to admit this naming rights plan struck a nerve with me.

First of all, I still am not reconciled to the idea of having all the college bowl games named after snack foods and auto insurers. My father and I attended the first four Peach Bowls in Atlanta when the games were played at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field. The game was put on by the Lions Clubs, with the profits going to charity.

Likely because of its nonprofit status, the Peach Bowl struggled for years and officials were happy when any school brought a crowd. People in Atlanta, in fact, were stunned when, at the University of Virginia’s first-ever bowl game in 1984, the Wahoo fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts. No one before ever got that excited about the Peach Bowl. 

Now the game is played in the Georgia Dome as Chick-fil-A Bowl, apparently fat and sassy with a corporate sponsorship and TV money. But I think something’s been lost.

Secondly, it’s always wise to name any structure after someone who has gone on to his reward rather than people or corporations that could eventually embarrass you. Remember Enron Field in Houston, the home of the Astros?  How about PSINet Stadium in Baltimore, the place where the Ravens roost?  Which pro team will be the next to play in a Bankruptcy Bowl?

Again, I am somewhat of a purist. I attended a college that had been in existence only 15 years by the time I graduated. Its alumni were too young to give the school big bucks, so it named the buildings after long-gone leaders such as John Knox and Mahatma Gandhi.  I lived in Gershwin House, named after George Gershwin.

Things changed, however, when Jack Eckerd, the founder of Eckerd Drugs, gave the school a load of money. Florida Presbyterian College became Eckerd College. Students celebrated by silk-screening dozens of T-shirts, which soon were seen all over campus. “Eckerd,” they read, “America’s Drug College.”

Finally, I dislike the naming rights idea because it appears to be another gimmick to scrape up some extra change for road repair.  Since McDonnell became governor, we’ve talked about tollbooths on the interstates and selling the ABC stores to fund transportation.

Some day, probably when our deteriorating roads turn to gravel, we are going to face the fact that Virginia needs a new revenue source for transportation above a state gasoline tax that hasn’t changed since 1986. After all, who wants the naming rights to a bridge if it’s falling down?

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