By Heather Abrey
Kitchener Post staff
Research In Motion (RIM) — a company that reported $2.9 billion in cash reserves last quarter — will be given advertising space in the downtown for free, after council voted 10-1 to allow an exemption to the city’s banner policy.
The policy, which regulates banners on light posts along King Street, does not allow corporate advertising, and specifies that banners can only be used to promote the city itself; community-based, non-profit events; and performances or events at city-related facilities, such as Centre in the Square.
As some councillors pointed out, banners often have a corporate component to indicate that a company has financially sponsored an event, such as the TD Canada Trust Blues Festival. However, logos on those banners cannot take up more than 20 per cent of the space, according to Rod Regier, executive director of economic development.
“The key thing about our policy is that it doesn’t allow for the primary message to be one of advertising,” he said.
However, the exemption given to RIM allows the company to put up banners in advance of the Blackberry 10 launch. They will stay up for three weeks.
While RIM will host a community skate at Civic Square, they do not wish to include that event on the banners, according to Cory Bluhm, manager of downtown development.
“Are we getting any benefit for this? Or are we just being asked to do them a favour for three weeks?” said Ward 10 Coun. Dan Glenn-Graham.
While RIM will be covering the expense for the banners, including installation, removal and any city staff time involved, they will not be paying the city for the advertising space, nor are they paying to use Civic Square to host their public skate.
“They’re helping to animate [Civic Square] with us,” said Regier. “They’re adding elements to it in terms of entertainment and that kind of thing, so there’s no rental fee for the square itself.”
RIM communication specialist Krista Seggewiss said RIM has yet to work out the details of their public skate, including what entertainment would be available. While the event will be free, skating at Civic Square is always free to the public.
Tim Hortons often provides free community skates and swims in facilities that are not normally free to the public. The company pays the city to rent a facility and then offers free admission, according to a senior administrator with Tim Hortons. While the company may get a “community rate,” they are charged for the rental, she said.
“RIM is grateful for the support of the community and is working on plans to celebrate the launch of BlackBerry 10,” reads a statement from Renata Rusiniak, manager of community relations with RIM.
“On the evening of Jan. 30, community members can join us for a family skate in Waterloo Public Square and Kitchener City Hall for free hot chocolate and cookies. It’s our way of saying thank you to loyal BlackBerry supporters in our own backyard.”
Several councillors expressed concern about setting a precedent by allowing the banners.
“I’m certainly sympathetic to RIM and I’m very glad they have this product. I hope it’s successful. I’m concerned about the endorsement from the city’s point of view. Although we do have a stake in their success and certainly they’re a huge partner in the community in general, I’m not sure about the message it’s sending,” said Glenn-Graham. “This makes me a little bit nervous about the message it’s sending.”
“It may be perceived in the business industry that we’re giving a bit more consideration to RIM,” said Ward 4 Coun. Yvonne Fernandes.
Ward 9 Coun. Frank Etherington asked how the city could turn down future offers, saying, “I’m a little uneasy about setting this precedent.”
Bluhm said that having other companies approach the city for a similar deal is one of the “risks.”
“Our suggestion is that, given the significance of this event, that’s the reason why we consider this an exception as opposed to amending the policy to allow this to happen further,” he said. “Beyond that, yes, there are obviously risks that we could be approached by other companies wanting to do the same.”
While Glenn-Graham, Etherington and Fernandes all expressed misgivings, only Ward 3 Coun. John Gazzola actually voted against the motion.
“I appreciate the importance of RIM, but there are a lot of other companies in our community that are very important to us also,” he said.
“I know that in the past there have been other corporate organizations that have wanted to use our banners and they’ve been turned down because we have pretty strict policies about what they can be used for. It’s for community-based functions.
“This is a pure and simple advertising, marketing situation.”
Ward 2 Coun. Berry Vrbanovic argued that RIM has been a long-time community partner and has a large impact on the local economy.
He also suggested that the city bring the idea of using The Cube — an art space on the outside of the Berlin Tower — to RIM, in conjunction with the banners.
“What’s being proposed here, I think, is a small request on the part of a company that is integral to the ongoing economic development in our region. It has been an important part of our region,” said Vrbanovic.
Mayor Carl Zehr agreed, chastising council for any hesitancy.
“This is a company that has been important to us in the past and I trust it will be in the future,” he said.
“I’m sort of disappointed that we’re even having a debate over it. The public, as a whole, would likely thank us for supporting it.”
But for Tamara Minns, whose downtown store RareFunk closed despite her efforts to lobby for help from various groups, including the downtown BIA, the move is a matter of helping an organization that simply doesn’t need it.
“Advertising is one of the most costly expenses for any business and it is so risky because there is no guarantee on investment. For small businesses, advertising is usually always what suffers because there just isn’t enough money for everything. RIM is a company that needs this help from the city the least,” she said.
“I definitely feel that you certainly have to be rubbing shoulders with the right people in order to get the assistance needed to survive in struggling times.”
“I think the banner is a no brainer,” said Ward 7 Coun. Bil Ioannidis.
“To not want to support them in this small gesture, to me, is kind of ridiculous. To say no to this is to say no to supporting our citizens.”
However, Gazzola noted that this small gesture could be the first step on a slippery slope.
“To open up our public streets to this form of advertising — where does it stop?” he said, noting that more research would need to be done into proper policies.
“I can’t see us bending our rules just for one of our businesses. I appreciate the importance of RIM, but I don’t know if they’re any more important than Schneiders has been in the past, or many other companies.”