STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Corporate America, it’s often called.
Here, as per the United States Supreme Court, corporations are no different from people when it comes to free speech – they can donate unrestricted amounts to campaigns coffers; corporate lobbyists stalk the halls of American power, eager to win lawmakers to their causes; companies name buildings and stadiums, sponsor schools and, soon, perhaps even Colorado’s state parks, with multi-million dollar donations.
Corporate influence, sources for this story say, has burgeoned in recent years with the global economic recession as public entities increasingly turn to corporations and lucrative company sponsorships for the revenue they need to survive.
These partnerships have raised ethical questions of how an entity retains its autonomy when it depends on businesses to stay alive.
“There is always a danger of a conflict of interest when you’ve got a for-profit entity that is cooperating with a nonprofit entity like a school or think tank,” said Justin McBrayer, a Fort Lewis College ethics professor.
By the end of this year, state parks could find themselves on that list.
NASCARing state parks
The Foundation for Colorado’s State Parks was founded in 1985 to help fund state parks, and in December 2011, the foundation went to Colorado Parks and Wildlife to propose a partnership with corporations, businesses and individuals to generate additional revenue for the parks.
In 2011, the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation and the Division of Wildlife merged into Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The combined agency has a 2012-13 annual budget of about $154 million, with state parks receiving about $52.3 million.
State parks previously received money from the general tax revenue fund, but that funding was cut in 2010. Now, state parks receive the majority of its funding from park visitors, Great Outdoors Colorado and Colorado Lottery, said Randy Hampton, spokesman for the department.
But Jeff Shoemaker, president of the Foundation for Colorado’s State Parks, said the foundation is seeking partnerships to evolve as an organization, not because Colorado state parks are financially strapped.
“There’s no longer any general fund going into parks and wildlife, and we felt as we started our second quarter of century that we have two choices: Leave things as they are and play it safe, or look at what is the next evolution as a foundation,” he said.
“Our goal is to increase the wherewithal of the foundation, so we can in turn increase our ability to support state parks. This is not a case where Colorado parks is financially at risk and they need the private sector to fill the coffers. We look at this as additional and supplemental support, not replacement support.”
The commission asked the foundation to take the issue to the public to find out what the tolerance would be for corporate partnerships.
Several public forums have been held to discuss the idea, and while Shoemaker says few attended, he does not attribute poor attendance to a lack of interest or support for state parks.
“I just haven’t noticed a significant concern for reaching out to the private sector,” he said.
Those who did attend raised concerns that parks would be renamed to reflect donors and have large logos and billboards within the park. They are not alone. Park and Wildlife officials initially raised those concerns, Hampton said.
“The ethics of this are the questions that we had in the first place. We have a statutory role and obligation, and in no way should these kinds of arrangements interfere with what our job is as an agency,” Hampton said.
Shoemaker cautioned the partnership will not be what he calls “NASCARing” state parks. The parks will retain their name, and there will be less logo visibility, he said.
“No one wants to billboard state parks,” he said.
While the parks will not be renamed, Hampton said other sponsorship ideas include sponsoring trails, naming visitor centers and possibly having a beverage company sell an official drink at a park.
The foundation has not determined which companies will be approached as partners. Parks and Wildlife will have to approve all partnerships.
The agency hopes partnerships will start with local businesses first and then move on to outdoor companies that are a good fit with the “healthy, get-outdoors lifestyle that we are trying to promote,” Hampton said.
“But if someone were to step forward with an opportunity that will keep the parks open, we also have an obligation to look at that,” he said.
McBrayer said there are fewer potential problems if the parks partner with outdoor companies like Patagonia that are already aligned with taking care of the environment and give a portion of its proceeds to environmental causes.
The foundation hopes to have a plan formulated by the end of this month or in October and will present an integrative plan to the Parks and Wildlife Commission in November or December.
One model the parks could look to is the partnership between schools and corporations.
“These kinds of partnerships are a valuable thing for colleges and universities,” said FLC spokesman Mitch Davis in an email to the Herald. “As state funding of higher education decreases, it’s very helpful to be able to find other sources of revenue that aren’t tuition or fees and thereby keep costs lower for students.”
One of FLC’s largest corporate sponsors is Coca-Cola. The corporate giant has a five-year, $103,500 contract with the school, which includes $10,700 worth of scholarships for each year of the contract and a percentage of the sales. In exchange, Coca-Cola has exclusive rights to the campus along with a banner that hangs on campus and at college events.
Other corporate sponsors include Follet, AT&T and Sodexo.
FLC does not have any endowed chairs – professorships paid for with donor revenues – but Davis said the college would like to have them in the future.
Endowed chairs allow universities to have additional staff without the costs coming out of its operational budget, but the chairs can pose problems for universities if donors have an agenda they want professors to push.
Numerous cases exist throughout the country of sponsors attempting to influence the school’s curriculum through an endowed chair, McBrayer said.
One of the most controversial cases surrounds former BB&T Corp. CEO John Allison, who gave universities millions of dollars to start programs devoted to his idol, Ayn Rand.
Several universities accepted the money to help fill budget shortfalls, but a few turned it down because of concerns about the corporation dictating the curriculum.
Davis said he thinks corporate influence is a bigger issue at larger universities that have tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in donations at stake.
“It’s up to a school’s administration to make sure that they are not put into a position where a corporation, or any donor for that matter, could exert inappropriate influence,” Davis said. “To be very honest, there just isn’t enough money in FLC’s corporate sponsorships for the administration to feel pressure to abide by a corporation’s demands.”
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald