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Diving for Dollars: Carmel water park looks to make splash by soaking up naming-rights deals

June 12, 2006
Carmel water park looks to make splash by soaking up naming-rights deals Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation has a novel business plan for the $55 million Monon Center at Central Park project that includes selling sponsorships and naming rights for its 10-acre water park and other attractions, possibly even for the entire venue.

The mammoth development-which will feature meeting space along with sports facilities, including the water park and fishing lagoons-is under construction and won't open for nine months. But the sponsorship push already is in full swing.

Parks officials hope money from sponsors will cover one-quarter to one-third of the park's $3.5 million annual budget, with the rest coming from user fees.

"This is an ambitious, but doable, goal," said Michael Klitzing, Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation assistant director.

The parks department recently hired full-time personnel to handle sponsorship sales and management. It also brought on board Indianapolis-based MillerWhite to serve as its marketing agency. Officials will unveil a logo and Web site in the coming weeks, and will roll out a directmail campaign targeting area citizens and businesses later this year.

"This is a progressive campaign, but it's something you have to do to fortify your name in the community," said Chris Jefferson,

MillerWhite's director of business development.

The mailing will include a DVD that provides information on the 161-acre park, which will include the indoor, 147,000-square-foot, multi-use Monon Center, trails and a water park with five swimming pools, two water slides, a lazy river and a diving well. The goal is to build awareness among area residents as well as pique the interest of businesses interested in sponsoring and even buying naming rights.

"We're not just taking the approach of, 'Build it and they will come,'" Klitzing said. "We're operating this department in a business mode that is somewhat unusual for most park and recreation departments."

Central Park is bordered by 111th and 116th streets, Westfield Boulevard, and College Avenue and is bisected by the popular Monon Trail, which runs from downtown Indianapolis to 146th Street on Carmel's northern border.

Parks officials are still formulating user fees and sponsorship costs and hope to announce specifics within 90 days. While the fees are key to covering operating costs, officials say the park also will have free offerings. Those offerings, officials said, will drive up attendance, making it more attractive to potential sponsors.

User fees aren't unusual at municipal parks. But marketing experts say sponsorship sales are.

While a handful of cities-including Dublin, Ohio, and Highland Park, Ill.- have generated substantial cash from sponsorship packages, Carmel Clay officials will face significant challenges, said William Chipps, senior editor of Chicagobased IEG Sponsorship Report.

"Success of these efforts is case by case," Chipps said. "Dealing with sponsorships requires a lot of work, not only in sales, but in managing the relationships. Most park and recreation departments aren't geared toward selling and managing sponsorships."

One thing Carmel has in its favor is upscale demographics, advertising experts said. According to census data, Carmel's median household income approaches $85,000. Median home values top $205,000, and more than 50 percent of its adult population is college-educated.

A combination of strong demographics and foresight put Carmel in a strong position to sell such corporate sponsorships, said Bob Gustafson, a Ball State University advertising professor.

"I'm not sure this type of program works everywhere, but I think it could work in Carmel," Gustafson said. "Not only is this a unique facility, but they've done a very good job in Carmel of developing it as a center for commerce, and that provides a stream of potential sponsors."

It won't be just the demographics that draw in sponsors, said Leon Younger, a former director of Indianapolis' parks who now runs locally based Pros Consulting.

"This facility is a major signature facility; that will be a significant regional draw," said Younger, whose company did the feasibility study for the venue. "There are very few facilities this big in the Midwest run by a local parks and recreation department."

Because there will be little media coverage of the attraction compared with a professional sports venue, attendance will be key to selling sponsorships and naming rights, IEG's Chipps said.

Studies commissioned by Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation project more than 500,000 visitors annually, not counting the many people who will cruise through on the Monon Trail.

The parks department's marketing budget is $127,000 this year, and will increase to $167,000 in 2007. Local property taxes will pay for construction costs. Klitzing said it may take up to two years before sponsorship revenue and user fees cover the operating budget.

Younger thinks many area companies will want to be part of the project as a means of showing community support. However, MillerWhite's Jefferson said his firm is prepared to show sponsorships will actually drive awareness, brand loyalty and sales.

"This sponsorship program is not designed as a corporate handout," Jefferson said. "It's a strategic program, where a sponsor's return on investment will be measured and demonstrated."

Chipps said if Carmel Clay doesn't follow that mind-set, sponsorship dollars will dry up.

"You sponsor a Little League baseball team as good will to your community," Chipps said. "Deals of this size have to demonstrate marketing value."

While Younger said banks, insurance companies and hospitals have sponsored similar venues elsewhere, IEG's Chipps said consumer brands-including Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, McDonald's and Pizza Hut-also are possibilities.

"You'll have a very strong family component and lots of impressionable kids at that facility, and there's a lot of purchasing power there," Chipps said. "That audience is very attractive to a variety of companies."

But Chipps said that if sponsorship is no more than hanging signs adorned with company logos, the program will fall short.

"These sponsors need to be fully integrated into the marketing of this facility," he said. "They need to be mentioned in the facilities' marketing material, and encouraged to use their association with this facility in their own marketing."

Parks officials need to allow sponsors to set up demonstration and free-sample booths at the venue, he said. Sponsors also should be encouraged to use their distribution channels to offer special promotions, such as discounted tickets.

"The ideal relationship with a sponsor works both ways," Chipps said. "A sponsor's marketing should push traffic to the facility, and its association with the facility must drive a sponsor's sales."
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