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October 26. 2013 9:58PM

Bienvenue, McGranite State visitors; officials mull naming rights to welcome centers

There's the sign: "Welcome to New Hampshire," sponsored by Walmart.

It may sound funny, but it's not far-fetched, according to a program to sell naming rights to roughly a dozen welcome and information centers the state hopes to have operating by January.

"We're not sure yet how much money it could bring in," said House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, who helped write legislation to initiate the program. "Because of a lack of funding, we have closed some rest areas; others are open on a limited basis. Others are in need of repair. This is a first step towards addressing the situation."

Under the program, rest areas around the state that were closed because of a lack of operating funds could reopen - with companies like Walmart, Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's picking up the cost by purchasing naming rights.

Chandler is a member of the Long Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee, which last week voted unanimously to approve the process to solicit bids from companies to develop and run the fledgling sponsorship program.

The program is scheduled to go out to bid Jan. 20, with a deadline of Feb. 24, 2014, for bids to be submitted. A screening committee will vet the proposals and select a finalist. State officials could have a three-year agreement drawn up and in place by next June. If the contract is approved by Gov. Maggie Hassan and the Executive Council, the program would start July 1, 2014. The governor and council members would also have to approve any advertising contracts the program generates. Restrictions would be placed on political ads at the rest stops, as well as companies that manufacture alcohol or tobacco products.

The Department of Transportation says programs to sell naming rights similar to the one being developed in New Hampshire already exist in 14 states. Two bills were passed recently in Virginia authorizing that state's Commonwealth Transportation Board to sell naming rights for roads and ferries. In Ohio, the DOT has started selling naming rights for roads and bridges, and advertising rights at rest stops. In Boston, the MBTA (the city's transit agency) has explored selling naming rights for subway stations.

Two service centers that will not be part of the program are the pair slated to be built along Interstate 93 in Hooksett. A groundbreaking ceremony was held last week for the roughly $32 million expansion of the Hooksett Welcome Centers. Under a 35-year lease with the state, the Common Man restaurant group will fund the design, construction, maintenance and operation of both service areas with the exception of the two NH Liquor and Wine Outlet Stores, which will be funded and operated by the state's Liquor Commission.

A similar effort to explore the sale of naming rights for bridges, roadways and similar structures was debated last year.

In 2013, state legislators looked at the merits of establishing a committee to weigh the merits of selling naming rights for these structures.

The idea was brought forth last legislative session by Rep. Dan McGuire, R-Epsom.

"Other states are just beginning to dip their toes into the pool when it comes to ideas like this," said McGuire.

McGuire's bill, HB 534, would have allowed the DOT commissioner to "issue a request for proposals (RFP) to sell naming rights for a particular structure, including but not limited to bridges, overpasses, and exits, to the highest bidder." The Legislature's website lists the bill's status as "Retained in Committee." All bills retained in committee for action shall be acted on during the second-year of session unless the House of Representatives suspends the rules.

DOT spokesman Bill Boynton wrote in an email that his department has no estimate on how much revenue could be generated by the sale of naming rights.

"We are open to any kind of innovative financing initiatives to meet our funding challenges that would help address New Hampshire's transportation needs," Boynton wrote.

"Handled properly, I think there could be a market for this," said Daniel E. Innis, dean and professor of marketing at UNH's Whittemore School of Business and Economics. "We're probably talking about larger firms and companies here, but depending on the terms and cost structure, I think there could be interest. It's a great way to get your name out there."

pfeely@unionleader.com


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