I normally don’t care this much about corporate sponsorship, but two events this week mean it’s worth mentioning some numbers and some ideas.

One of course is the Bell Let’s Talk PR campaign. And I am more than done talking about that mess.

The other is Solidarity Halifax‘s campaign to re-name the Halifax’s Oval.

I think there are compelling ethical reasons to oppose naming a public recreation facility which is overwhelming funded by public money and which is located on commons land after a company that used to be publicly owned until it was given away to private investors who despite earning obscene profits have let the electrical grid fall into such a state of disrepair that their PR department had to start blaming outages on salty fog.

But the deal makes no sense from a purely monetary standpoint either. The short version is this:

Emera, parent company of Nova Scotia Power contributes $33,333.33 per year for exclusive naming rights and significant signage (it was $500,000 in a lump payment for an absurdly long 15 year contract).*  This is an awful deal for the city for three basic reasons:

1) Emera get 30 signs in a highly visible location, plus mention in press releases, some news reports, their logo on city materials and websites and good will for the next 14 years. In contrast the average cost of a billboard in downtown Halifax is $18,000 per year with most major advertising campaigns running 6-10 billboard throughout the city. From an objective standpoint $33,333.33 per year is a pretty good deal. And if $33k seems like a good deal for that much advertising now, imagine how sweet of a deal it will be in 2026, the last year of the contract, once you factor in both inflation and the assumed increase in population on peninsular Halifax.

2) Emera only exist (and makes a quarter billion dollars per year in profits) because the NS government sold a public utility to private ownership at below market cost 20 years ago. The $33k per year they’re contributing is money that belongs to Nova Scotians, both in the sense that they are charging us a profitable rate to access a basic necessity of modern life (and sometimes wrongfully overcharging us) and in the sense that they infrastructure they use to produce profit should still belong to the citizens of Nova Scotia.

3) By far the funniest thing to me is that while its parent company contributes $33k per year, Nova Scotia Power charge the city about $86,000 per year in energy costs to operate the oval. Emera giveth. Emera taketh away 2.6 times as much. The Emera Oval being open doesn’t actually cost them anything.

Money aside, I think the re-naming matters and organizing around a an unofficial name is a worthwhile tactic.

Of course, the city is unlikely to choose to officially use the name that Haligonians choose through the Solidarity Halifax campaign. The CTV interview that aired last night even went so far as to dismissively describe the future re-naming as existing purely in the imagination of activists and voters. I don’t disagree that this will be purely imaginative, but I think that the collective exercising of a re-imaging of public and common spaces is necessary in the times we live in. We have to re-think and re-map the city.

The re-naming of the Oval is precisely this:  an exercise in cartographic re-imagining. Cartography is always about making value judgements – a map necessarily includes that which is important and excludes that which is considered extraneous. I am fully in favour rendering Nova Scotia Power and Emera extraneous and admitting the importance of Nova Scotians who have struggled against systematic oppression. People and groups like Rocky Jones, JB McLachlan, the Provincial Working Man’s Association, Viola Desmond, the Morgentaler Clinic, the Gay Alliance for Equality, Jean-Baptiste Cope and countless others deserve to be commemorated and learned from. Let us mark their names and legacies on the unofficial maps that exist in the imaginations of the people who actually live, work and play in Halifax.

It will be an unofficial name and it may or may not stick, I’m fully willing to concede that. But in 1977 after the South African government murdered the anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko, students at Trent University unofficially changed the name of their university library to the Biko Library.

It had previously been named for shoe mogul Thomas J. Bata. Bata was a strong supporter of apartheid – he only sold his holdings in South Africa when pressured to by the Canadian government, at one point saying “We expanded into Africa in order to sell shoes, not to spread sweetness and light.” (incidentally he maintained black servants in his home through the 21st century) Bata was a major donor to Trent and when the library opened in 1969 it was named after him. After Biko’s murder students ran a campaign to have it renamed. The university refused to officially rename it but generation after generation of politically concerned students have continued to call it the Biko Library.

When I first arrived as a grad student at Trent in 2009 (32 years after the “imaginary” re-naming) one of my classmates who had done his undergrad at Trent called it the Biko Library while we were sitting in front of it waiting for a bus. The signs and maps and syllabi all said Bata so I asked him what the hell he was on about. It introduced me to an oral history of the complicity of the University and one of its major financial backers in propping up apartheid and the battle that Trent students waged in the name of trying to right at least a tiny sliver of the collective injustices of a brutal system. It forced a conversation 32 years after the murder of a man who fought and died an ocean away.

It was a reminder that space and names matter. That space can and should be fought over. That people who care more about the lives of heros can challenge the power of those who care about rewarding corporate “donations.” It reminded us that other maps, other names and other imaginations are not just possible, but a necessary part of any struggle for a more just world.

So yes – it is just the name of an oval. Yes, the re-mapping will be imaginary. And yes, I think it is worthwhile.

* It is unclear if the contract for naming rights is ten or fifteen years. (And as a result it is unclear if Emera pay $33,333.33 per annum or $50,000 per annum) Figuring out what the actual length of the contract is seems to be far, far more complicated than it ought to be. None of what follows is all that important, but if you’re curious keep reading.

The proposed but term sheet posted among council documents from December 6, 2011 says that the length is:

Subject to the termination rights in favour of Emera and HRM as noted below, the Agreement shall commence on the Effective Date and continue for a period of 5 years and thereafter be automatically renewed for an additional 5 year period (the “Term”). The Parties agree to review the signage, including appearance and location, following the first 5 years of the Term. For greater certainty, no further monies shall be due and owing by Emera to HRM upon the renewal.

That appears to be a 10 year naming rights deal. The term sheets were attached to council minutes for the December 13th meeting and approved by council.

But news outlets like the Herald, CBC and the Globe and Mail overwhelming reported it at the time as Emera receiving exclusive naming rights for 15 years. The $500k for 15 years number was repeated again this week by Chris Cochrane at the Chronicle Herald. I haven’t seen a single notice of retraction or correction from any of these news papers in regard to the figure.

Emera’s own press release at the time says that “Emera [is] investing $500,000 over 10 years” which could mean ten years of naming rights or it could mean paying $500k over ten years to get 15 years worth of naming rights.

The confusion seems to be at least partially explained by Laura Fraser in the December 12, 2011 edition of the Herald explained the day after the council meeting. She noted that: “The contract says it would run for 10 years, but councillors said during debate last week that the term would last 15 years.”

While council officially approved a term sheet for the Emera naming deal, the arrangements was originally approved in principle by council in an in-camera session November 22nd and a new staff report with new, non-public documents was circulated to councilors on December 6 – so it is unclear to me if something happened to change in those weeks or if the (unavailable anywhere online) final contract actually ended up looking different from the term sheet tabled to and approved by city council on December 13.

It feels like at some point this became a 15 year deal in the eyes of the media (and I am assuming there’s a press release or press conference or updated contract somewhere that I just haven’t been able to find that confirms a contractual change) and HRM and Emera have chosen not to correct it

All of this is a stupidly long winded way of saying that I can’t figure out exactly how long the contract is so I am going with the overwhelming media consensus and the word of councilors. If I am wrong, I am wrong.