A city of Atlanta restriction on putting donors’ names in parks is crippling fundraising for PATH400’s $9 million capital campaign, according to Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling.

Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling.
Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling.

Buckhead Community Improvement District board member Robin Loudermilk raised the issue at the March 2 CID meeting, where he asked Starling whether naming rights are available for a new park area along the multi-use trail and indicated he’d like to make a significant donation.

Starling replied that any such donor recognition is a “hot-button issue with the city” and the current answer is no, though she has been trying to work out an agreement quietly.

“The city has a lot of concerns about commercializing the parks…It’s a very politically hot potato,” Starling told the CID board. “It’s crippling us,” she said, because donor recognition plaques are a major fundraising tool for the money needed to build out the path and related park system.

Starling said in a later interview that the city’s donor recognition policy appears to be informal, and there are contrary examples, such as the donor-naming bricks on display in Buckhead’s Loudermilk Park.

“There’s not a set policy on how to do it…but they’re taking a real hard line on it right now,” Starling said. “I’ve never seen it [put in writing].”

“We do not support the commercialization of our assets,” said city spokeswoman Jewanna Gaither, adding that the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation “does recognize the value of public/private partnerships and has presented a variety of appropriate solutions to Livable Buckhead which promote such interests.”

“I’ve been fighting this battle because we’re leaving millions on the table—millions,” City Councilman and CID board member Howard Shook said at the March 2 meeting. “I see names on a lot of [other] things…Are we safe if we find dead people [to honor on sponsorship plaques]?”

Starling said that Livable Buckhead has run into the donor-recognition issue before in its work on three Buckhead parks. PATH400 has several partners and runs largely on state-owned land, but city of Atlanta rules may apply because the main construction agreement is a deal between the city and the state Department of Transportation, Starling said. A planned extension into Sandy Springs would not be affected by the Atlanta policy, she said.

Livable Buckhead recently launched a three-year capital campaign to raise $9 million needed to complete PATH400. Loudermilk is the campaign’s co-chair and his family’s foundation contributed a $250,000 matching donation that runs through March 31.

The PATH Foundation is contributing an amount that Starling declined to reveal, but she indicated that Livable Buckhead has a significant amount to raise on its own.

Small plaques are a main option PATH400 could offer, she said. Other opportunities Livable Buckhead would like to offer include recognition on public art, a potential “donor wall” showcasing donor names, and possible naming rights of segments of the trail, if it could be done with a “discreet feel.”

“It is an extremely important component of fundraising,” Starling said of donor recognition.

The fundraising issue is not delaying any construction yet on the path, which already has a major section open to the public, Starling said, but it is already causing Livable Buckhead to miss out on donations. “Some are philanthropic dollars and some are coming out of advertising revenue,” she said.

City parks officials have raised various concerns, Starling said, including whether donor recognition could be revoked if the money came from “someone who became Public Enemy Number One.” Another concern is showy signs or advertising logos.

“We’re not going to pimp out the park, for lack of a better way of putting it,” Starling said.

Starling said she is discussing possible compromises with the city, including a legal agreement to cover the entire project or “one-by-one approval” of donor recognition items.

For more information about the PATH400 capital campaign, see livablebuckhead.org.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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