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Community college bucks trend on naming rights

uvw916a/Flickr Three Stages at Folsom Lake College will be renamed the Harris Center for the Arts, after the Los Rios Community College District's former chancellor. 

Cash-strapped colleges seem to take every opportunity to rustle up funding from donors for naming rights – College of the Desert recently named two buildings after two different donors, and City College of San Francisco even attempted in 2009 to get donors to sponsor individual classes.

But the Los Rios Community College District is bucking the trend. The Board of Trustees voted in August to honor outgoing district Chancellor Brice Harris by naming the district's performing arts center after him – for free. That has some community leaders balking at what they say are lost opportunities.

Two years after the opening of the $49.4 million Three Stages center at Folsom Lake College in Folsom, the Los Rios district board voted unanimously to change the name to the Harris Center for the Arts. Harris retired from Los Rios this year and recently was named chancellor of the California Community Colleges system; he begins work in his new role today.

The Folsom Lake College Foundation had hoped to find a donor who would provide about $3 million for  naming rights, though the search had been unsuccessful so far. In a Sept. 18 letter to the trustees, Folsom Lake College Foundation board member Katherine Anastasi called the name change a bad business move.

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“We will have the opportunity to generate funds for the naming rights to the Performing Arts Center which will benefit the District and education of our students,” Anastasi wrote. “I am disappointed that the members of the Board did not keep in mind their fiduciary responsibility by throwing away funds that can be used for education.”

Anastasi and others said in letters and interviews that they also are concerned about losing the name recognition of Three Stages, which has drawn the likes of the Joffrey Ballet and Rosanne Cash. They hoped any new moniker would have kept that branding – think the “Brice Harris Three Stages Theater.”

“Everybody in the community, in the Sacramento region, has a debt of gratitude to the great work that Brice Harris has done,” said Folsom Mayor Kerri Howell. “We’d just hate to see all of the effort that's gone into the branding of that fabulous venue lost because of the name change.”

Neva Cimaroli, a donor who estimates she has contributed at least $250,000 to the theater, added that the name change will be costly.

"It takes funds for the massive task of sign changing, educating the public to a new name, ticket sponsors, and the multitude of other places where the 'Three Stages' name is thoroughly embedded," Cimaroli wrote.

In letters to Anastasi and Cimaroli, Los Rios district board President Ruth Scribner said it was Harris' vision that led to the creation of a regional performing arts center rather than just a college auditorium.

“Please be aware the response from the greater Sacramento community to the new name has been overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic,” Scribner wrote.

Supporters of the name change say it’s unrealistic that the foundation would have been able to find a donor interested in the naming rights.

“If no one has stepped forward to do it now, I don’t know if they are going to find somebody to do it,” said Dave Younger, a board member for the Los Rios Foundation.

The trustees opted not to heed board policy that says the district should not name a facility after someone associated with the district or California education until at least three years after the end of his or her service.

In an email, district spokeswoman Susie Williams said the policy uses the word "should," leaving the board discretion in this area.

At a time when higher education is strapped for cash, it’s not unusual for colleges and universities to seek money for naming rights. College of the Desert in Palm Desert named a new student services center in 2008 in honor of donors Peggy and Donald Cravens, who gave $3.5 million. The college’s nursing and health sciences buildings are named for the Coeta and Donald Barker Foundation, which pledged $2 million.

Former City College of San Francisco Chancellor Don Griffin in 2009 offered up naming rights for canceled classes to donors who paid $6,000 a pop to save them. The college ended up deciding not to name the classes for sponsors after trustees objected to the plan.

The Folsom Lake College Foundation already had sold some naming rights within Three Stages. Donors can name a seat for $1,000. The City Studio Theater is named for the city of Folsom’s contributions.

Still, for Younger, naming the center after Harris is the perfect fit. Harris used to host an annual fundraiser called Jeans & Strings at his home to benefit the district's arts programs.

“From my perspective, facilities that are named … after a company, like the Power Balance Pavilion (which recently was renamed the Sleep Train Arena), I don’t think that’s a very good thing. ... I think honoring Dr. Harris is a much better use than some of the other options out there,” Younger said.

Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report

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