CINCINNATI - As the September launch of Cincinnati's streetcar draws closer, pressure is mounting to land a major deal leaders say is critical to the system's financial future: long-term naming rights for the five-car system.
Last last year, Blue Ash-based mobile outdoor marketing firm Advertising Vehicles was tapped with the top job of finding a corporate buyer willing to put their firm's name and logo on the more than 3-mile system, as well as develop an advertising strategy for space inside and outside the cars.
In some cities, such deals have fetched millions of dollars over multiple years for transit operators. Locally, city officials are banking big on the money from naming rights and ad sales to pay for streetcar operations.
Projections show a range of $106,000 to $360,000 expected annually from the deals to help cover the system's costs, according to recent figures from the city.
As opening day for the streetcar comes into view, Cincinnati City Councilwoman Yvette Simpson said Tuesday she's frustrated that city leaders haven't heard more about progress being made on the ad sales front.
"This is a critical part of the operating budget, and if handled correctly could be really lucrative for the streetcar budget," Simpson said. "I don't want to be alarmist or over crucial, but...there needs to be strategy and a plan, and it needs to be producing."
Ken Black, a founding partner with Advertising Strategies, told WCPO late Tuesday that his agency has had "high levels of interest" from firm's across Cincinnati since launching its sales effort just before the holidays last year.
"We're having a lot of good conversations and we're working to generate as much revenue for the city as we can," Black said.
Black declined to share the going rate for a firm interested in placing its name on the streetcar, but offered that his three-member sales team is pitching the deal as a 15- to 20-year commitment.
"We're looking for that firm that wants to latch on and have its name be synonymous with Cincinnati and the streetcar, just as corporate partners have done on the river with the arena and the ball parks," Black said. "We're highly optimistic that we'll have this done (in time for the streetcar's opening day)."
Black's firms is the second marketing agency to be brought in for the job. A Cleveland-based company that had been hired by former Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney was let go from the role early in 2015 after city leaders said not enough progress had been made.
For more than a decade, Advertising Vehicles has been the lead agency selling space across Metro's fleet of buses under a contract with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority. Under its contract with the city to run the streetcar, the transit authority is also responsible for managing the ad sales contract with Advertising Vehicles.
Mired in political debates and controversy for much of it's evolution in Cincinnati, the streetcar could prove a tough sell for many firms, Mike McCarthy, a marketing professor at Miami University, told WCPO last year.
“There has been a lot of drama around this thing,” he said.
If you’re a company or a brand that wants to avoid controversy, "you’re going to stay away," McCarthy said. "But, if you’re a firm that wants to reach the more progressive crowd or show support for urban development, then this is the space for you to play."
So far, Black said his firm has faced minimal pushback from companies who say they're aren't interested in what he's selling.
"The majority of people are very positive, and we're getting high levels of interest," he said.
Black is expected to offer an update on its work to the council's transportation committee in early February.