Take a trip to the San Francisco Zoo and you’ll see something you may have never seen before: a 14-passenger, solar-electric shuttle with beady orange owl eyes staring at you.

These eyes gawk from a banner displayed across the side and above the front window of the transporter. “Get Closer at Natgeowild.com,” reads the text, promoting the National Geographic website. Such an advertisement might not be the strangest sight at the zoo, but it could be one of the rarest, because public spaces traditionally have been forbidden territory for corporate sponsors.

But not anymore.

In the face of endangered funds, the idea to put ads in zoos, parks and gardens has spread countrywide. The notion is dividing government agencies that are desperate for revenue to save public spaces and environmental groups that want to protect natural areas from a brand-name invasion.

“I think it’s a very slippery slope,” said Bill Wade, a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, Va., and now a leader of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.“I don’t want to think about the potential outcome years from now of what these places are going to look like.”

For critics, the quandary raises weighty questions: Do governments have any business selling ad space to generate revenue? Will the practice look like an endorsement of a product or service?

And in the case of the San Francisco Zoo, which is operated by the city and the San Francisco Zoological Society, the plot thickens because the NASCAR-style ads help support green technology. After securing the National Geographic Society as a corporate sponsor, the zoo became the first in the country to deploy two free electric vehicles as part of a pilot program by the Solar Electric Vehicle Co. (SEVC).

“It just seemed to be natural fit,” said Bob Jenkins, the zoo’s vice president for institutional advancement and the project lead. “Since they came free of charge pending the agreement, and we had the right to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ with regard to the sponsors, we saw this as a win-win.”

Ad Space Available

Considering the country’s economic climate, SEVC, based in Northbrook, Ill., launched the pilot as a way to deliver energy-efficient vehicles at no cost to operators of public spaces.

“The fact is you can’t get advertising or promotion inside of a zoo, garden or park. They don’t sell it,” said SEVC Vice President Bill Eichengreen. “This is a unique business model that we thought would accelerate getting solar-electric vehicles out there in front of the public. When they see the vehicle, they want to ride on it. When they see that a sponsor made it possible, it does great goodwill.”

In this model, as seen with the San Francisco Zoo, every party involved reaps rewards, Eichengreen said. The sponsor pays for the vehicle and gets eco-friendly recognition for providing green technology; the zoo, in turn, gets a free electric vehicle to use; and SEVC collects monthly payments from the corporate sponsor.

But with corporate sponsorships, will these vehicles ultimately look like NASCAR racecars roaming the parks? Not according to Eichengreen, who said the ads are “very tastefully done.” In addition, organizations have the right to refuse any sponsor and certain companies will be prohibited automatically.

“I don’t think a beer company is appropriate for a zoo, which has kids and families,” he said.

In addition to the multipassenger shuttle, the company also has a four-passenger, street-legal electric security vehicle with lights and sirens. Eichengreen added that the company’s manufacturing partner, Sarasota, Fla.’s Cruise Car Inc., is an approved General Services Administration license holder.

Though the SEVC pilot started in San Francisco, the program has been gaining traction at a critical time — cash-strapped states are devising alternatives, such as raising park fees or closing parks, to weather the economic storm. From California to Georgia to New York, various states in recent months grappled with the delicate question of whether corporate sponsors could and should save parks.

To boost revenue and plug budget gaps in Georgia, the state’s Department of Natural Resources recently hired a marketing firm to help identify sponsors for events and infrastructure within state-owned parks.

“It’s important for us to maintain high-quality facilities to ensure a positive experience for our visitors, while keeping rates reasonable so that they can remain accessible to Georgians,” said Georgia Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Clark. “If engaging corporate partners helps us keep our facilities open and maintained, I think our visitors will be comfortable with small signs recognizing those partners.”

In Washington state, the use of corporate sponsorships by government entities must have a public purpose, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center. In most cases, it would be a public-private partnership in which the jurisdiction receives funding, goods or services from a private entity in return for naming rights or advertising.

But with the trend of corporate sponsorships, especially on the national level, Wade sees signs of trouble ahead — a potential risk of whittling away the basic concept of parks until they become mundane commercial zones.

“I think people go to parks to get away from the things they see in everyday working life,” he said. “The whole idea is that they would be special, not like other places. The more they move toward commercialism, the more they lose that specialness.”

Sponsors Wanted

Moving beyond plaques honoring donors and trails sponsored by companies, the mobile billboard approach adds a new twist to the corporate sponsorship concept.

In SEVC’s program, the ads appear only on the vehicles, possibly signifying a trend, given California’s similar idea to use pop-up ads on citizens’ digital license plates to pay bills.

There’s also the fact that the shuttles and police vehicles can cut fuel and maintenance costs because they’re solar powered. With the acquisition of the vehicles at the San Francisco Zoo, for example, administrators took four of their six golf carts offline, saving money that would have gone to repairs. And solar panels can extend battery life by one-third, Eichengreen said, adding that the vehicles can go up to 25 mph.

It was a deal that made too much sense for Barb Vicory not to pursue. As executive director of the Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves in Illinois, she had been looking for a new police vehicle and a trolley for tours that could better navigate the trail system at the Independence Grove Forest Preserve.

At the moment, the preserve has standard police vehicles that barely fit on the paths. Slightly larger than golf carts, the new electric vehicles would be more maneuverable and quieter with zero emissions.

“It meets our desire to have an open and approachable vehicle,” Vicory said. “It’s much more customer-service oriented than a squad car.”

The solar trolley, she added, would be accessible to people with disabilities, helping provide transportation to senior programs and events and for “people who don’t have a way of enjoying the finest preserve trails.”

The foundation is actively seeking partners for the project and sponsors to provide $20,000 per vehicle. It’s first-come, first-serve, Vicory said, and there has been some interest, but so far no takers.

“We’re closing in on the end of the summer,” she said, “but we’ll certainly keep feelers out for next year. This is a pilot project, and if we see that it really is a good benefit, it would be happily extended.”

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer