Matter now resides in the hands of the ABC Commission
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
RALEIGH — Chided by the News and Observer for making controversial plans for its new public concert venue during a private meeting, the Raleigh City Council voted openly Tuesday to continue pursuit of a $1.5 million deal with Anheuser-Busch that would name the facility Bud Light Amphitheater.
While the 7-1 vote (Thomas Crowder opposing) in open session may absolve the city of its Public Meeting Law violation, it doesn’t change the fact that naming a public structure after a beer is a bad idea.
“We had hoped that the City Council would heed the newspaper’s advice to reject the backdoor deal and instead ask for public bids,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Instead, it remains in the hands of the ABC Commission, whom we hope will quash the Bud Light idea.”
Apparently, city officials had not only voted in a closed meeting to ask the Commission to support an exemption to state law that prevents public venues from being named for alcoholic beverages, but had “shopped around the naming deal,” under the radar as well before landing on Harris Wholesale, according to an N&O editorial.
Mary-Ann Baldwin, the only city council member who answered the Christian Action League’s request for information, said the city attorney brought the issue up for discussion in closed meeting and “since this was related to contract negotiations,” she did not think it was a violation of the Open Meetings Law.
But Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association, agreed with the newspaper. According to state law, closed sessions are allowed in only nine specific instances, which include the public body’s discussion of a potential lawsuit, a real estate transaction, an individual employment or grievance issue, economic development plans, or plans relating to potential terrorist activity. Even if the discussion occurs in private, public bodies must come back into open session to vote on contracts or policy issues.
However, Martin told the Christian Action League that someone would have to file suit to challenge the Council’s action.
“Both the open meetings and public records laws are enforced only when citizens or media insist that they be followed,” she said.
Tuesday’s vote makes the violation somewhat of a moot point, but it doesn’t mean citizens should stop speaking out about a name for the 5,000-seat facility. In fact, its all the more reason they should let their opinions be known.
“We have had several e-mails from people who are against this, but the comments have been minimal,” Baldwin said.
A PollDaddy poll on WakeMyNC.com shows 56 percent of respondents opposing the Bud Light name; 18 percent supporting it and 26 percent saying they didn’t care one way or the other. WRAL’s poll shows 62 percent agreeing with the name and 38 percent in opposition. And Mayor Charles Meeker said Thursday that the city Web site’s poll was running 60 to 40 in favor of the council’s plan.
More important than the informal polls will be the feedback received by the ABC Commission, set to consider the issue next month. Chairman Jon Williams said the three-member panel wants to be “very cautious about anything that might promote a pro-alcohol culture in North Carolina.”
If the McDowell Street facility is named for Bud Light, it would set a precedent, opening the door for cities across the state to sell out to alcohol. Meeker said that some beer wholesalers were opposing the Bud Light name for fear that it would lead their communities to press them for financial deals similar to what Harris is offering.
The proposed five-year contract, at $300,000 per year, calls for the amphitheater entrance to include a Bud Light marquee. The beer’s name and logo would be in all print, radio, television and online advertising connected with the concert venue. Anheuser-Busch would also develop banner ads and logos for the City’s Web site.
Stressing that the city has not yet signed any contract, Meeker said there also remains a question as to whether the name on the facility should be a company name instead of a product name. He said the amphitheater deal is different from most sponsorships in that rather than a mere 15 to 20 percent, the beer company would be funding 75 percent of the construction cost. Last fall, he told the media that $500,000 left over from construction of the convention center would be used for the amphitheater and that the rest of the funding would come from an accommodation tax on hotels and restaurant meals. Based on a projected annual profit of $500,000, Meeker had told WRAL late last fall that the facility would “pay for itself in four to five years.” On Thursday, he said that if the sponsorship occurs, money from the hotel tax would be used for something else. He also said the profit projections may have included an anticipated sponsorship.
“Some folks say if it’s the alcohol industry who is willing to pay, then take the money, slap their name on it and forget about it. But the fact is, with all the amphitheater promotions and signage touting the Bud Light name, we can’t forget and neither can our young people,” said the Rev. Creech. “Already underage drinking kills some 5,000 youth — that’s enough to fill up the amphitheater — via alcohol related injuries each year. Our government should not be a part of that.”
A 2007 RAND Corporation study of sixth- and seventh-graders found that those exposed to alcohol ads at high levels — from TV, magazines, in-store displays and promotional items like T-shirts and posters — were 50 percent more likely to drink and 36 percent more likely to intend to drink than children whose exposure to alcohol ads was low. The lead author of the study, Rebecca L. Collins told Scientific Blogging that parents can make a difference by keeping promotional merchandise away from their kids.
“My guess is that many parents think it’s harmless: your kid has a Budweiser T-shirt, it’s just funny,” she said. “But it probably is a subtle communication to kids that beer drinking is cool.”
“My question is how can parents shield their children from the message when the ‘promotional item’ is a huge city-owned facility in the heart of Raleigh?” said the Rev. Creech. “I’m sure many of the performances slated will draw not only adults but families eager to enjoy an outdoor concert.”
Promoter Live Nation has promised to recruit roughly 20 acts for the amphitheater each year, which city officials say will draw an expected 225,000 people. The Backstreet Boys concert June 6 will be the official grand opening, though a June 4 preview show will give fans a sneak peek.
Take Christian Action: If you don’t believe Raleigh’s amphitheater should be named after Bud Light, visit the ABC Commission Web site at www.ncabc.com and click on “Comment on Raleigh Amphitheater Name Request” to share your concerns.