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Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 12 News List

In the land where money talks, even town names are for sale

In the US, it seems, anything and everything is for sale, and that includes the naming rights to small communities such as Clark, Texas, now known as DISH


In this undated handout image Mayor Bill Merritt poses next to the DISH city limits sign. Photo: AFP

Back in the 1950s, Hot Springs, New Mexico, was renamed Truth or Consequences, after a popular quiz show. During the dot-com boom of 2000, Halfway, Oregon, agreed to become Half.com for one year.

This week, Clark, Texas, morphed into DISH, Texas. Residents in Santa, Idaho, meanwhile, are weighing the pros and cons of changing to Secretsanta.com, Idaho.

Across the nation, small communities are being courted by large corporations who say renaming a town provides a marketing buzz that can't be bought in television ads. Though some worry about corporate America's increasing influence in local government, most towns seem eager to accept.

In a deal unanimously approved by the two-member town council on Tuesday evening, Clark agreed to be renamed DISH, effective immediately. It's part of an advertising campaign for Englewood, Colorado-based EchoStar Communications Corp, which operates the Dish Network satellite TV system.

In exchange, the 55 homes in the bedroom community a half hour's drive north of Dallas-Fort Worth will get free Dish satellite equipment and basic service for the next decade. Company executives pegged the deal at about US$4,500 per home. Signs bearing the town's name are being changed to DISH as well.

Beyond the lure of free TV service for the 125 residents, the renaming is a way for the tiny town to attract businesses and residents, said Mayor Bill Merritt, who actively courted EchoStar to pick the town.

"We really look at this as kind of a rebirth for our community," Merritt said. "We want everybody to come here."

In 2000, Halfway, Oregon, agreed to become Half.com for a year in an agreement that put US$100,000 in the town coffer and a new computer lab for the school.

The rural town of 345 used the money to buy a snow plow, something former mayor Marvin Burgraff said was badly needed and has already been used several times this year. And it gave the area known for its outdoor splendor a tourist boon that continues to this day.

Though the name is back to Halfway, the town still has signs that read "Welcome to Half.com, the World's First Dot-com City."

"It was a good experience," said Burgraff, who served as mayor after the decision had already been approved. "It was kind of fun. You look back on it and it's good thoughts."

In an age of pervasive advertising most people ignore, such stunts are a good way to grab the public's attention, said Mark Hughes, chief executive of Buzzmarketing and the former Half.com executive who devised the Oregon deal.

"Word of mouth is the most powerful form of communication and marketing out there," Hughes said via telephone from Santa, where he's now leading the effort to get Santa, Idaho, renamed. "No one's going to talk about the three-thousandth Web site that launched this week. What this does is give people a reason to talk."

But some things shouldn't be for sale, argued Gary Ruskin of the nonprofit Commercial Alert.

Towns should provide basic services such as trash collection and education, "not hawk television at its residents," he said.

"The names of our civic places reflect our values and our aspirations," Ruskin said. "It's wrong to sever the link between civic names and civic virtue."

Offers of corporate interest have backfired in some communities.

In 2003, residents of Biggs, California, overwhelmingly rejected a California Milk Processor Board proposal to rename the city of 1,800 to Got Milk? in exchange for a milk museum and money for the local school.

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