June 29, 2000: Sell Atlanta to the Highest Bidder?

I noticed that Robb Pitts, president of the Atlanta City Council and a mayoral candidate, is proposing to sell naming rights to Hartsfield International Airport, much as the free-loading professional sports teams have done.  Mr. Pitts says he was inspired by the fact that Philips Electronics is paying $20 million a year for 20 years to have its name on the arena in Atlanta that hosts the two biggest losers in town, the Hawks and the Thrashers.  That kind of corporate reasoning makes me hesitant to plug in one of their toasters.

As I understand it, he wouldn’t just sell the airport rights, he’d sell the individual concourses.  Can’t you just see it now?   You park in the Burger King parking lot and enter the Bank of America terminal to get your ticket.  From there, you are directed to the Men’s Warehouse concourse.  That is, of course, after you have been checked out at the Dunkin’ Doughnuts security checkpoint.

If Pitts wants to pursue this idea through to its logical conclusion, I would suggest that he also encourage Delta Airlines to sell their coach section to a sardine packing company.  It would be a natural.

He reasons that if the Ted Turner/Looney Tunes/AOL/Time-Warner mega-conglomerate can get such big bucks for showcasing ineptitude, think what Atlanta could get for its airport, which is about the only thing in the city that works.  Mr. Pitts thinks his idea is worth the look because Atlanta is a “cutting edge” city.

I hate to burst his balloon but this is not a new idea.  Back when a group of us were trying to get the town ready for the Olympic Games, the city’s marketing department came up with a “cutting edge” program to sell streets, parks, buildings, and just about anything else they could get their hands on to the highest bidder.  There was even some talk of bouncing laser beam ads off the moon until the city’s crack legal department determined that, alas, Atlanta didn’t own the moon.  Not to be deterred, the city ended up selling its soul in the form of a street-vending program that looked like a flea market on steroids while the local news media and the business community dithered.  That effort brought us worldwide scorn and netted the city a cool $2.5 million.  At least we found out what Atlanta thinks its reputation is worth.

But let’s not be too harsh on Mr. Pitts.  There may be some merit in his idea.  For example, the city remains 400 police short of having a full contingent and shows no signs of ever filling the void.  Therefore, let’s sell the police department.  If the police ever stopped you  – highly unlikely unless you are an NFL linebacker with an attitude – you might notice their shirts with the “Acme Well Drilling and Tree Stump Removal” logo.  The city could take the proceeds from that corporate sale and hire the cops it was unable to hire with the $2.5 million it made off of trashing downtown.

I see no end to the opportunities.  The state would be wise to get in on the action.  We could probably get a fortune from our highway system alone.  Just think how easy it will be to direct some poor soul from Quebec trying to get to Florida:  “Just take the Home Depot I-75 and hang a right onto I-475, sponsored by your local Coca-Cola bottler.  That is, unless, you choose to go down Winn-Dixie Way, formerly I-16.”  The state highway department could take those much-needed dollars and pave over what little green space we still have left.

Despite his enthusiasm for it, I don’t think Mr. Pitts’ airport scheme is going to fly.  Or at least I hope not.  Instead of spending his time on this cockamamie idea, he might want to focus on making the city work.  Close the bars down at a decent hour, run off illegal street vendors and panhandlers, get the police force up to strength, pick up the trash, encourage the business community to come out of hiding and help put some quality of life back in the city, get away from the obsession on race and understand that what happens in Atlanta – good or bad – affects the rest of the state.

But all is not lost.  I think there is an excellent chance that he could sell his idea to Disney.  It is just Mickey Mouse enough that they might buy it.