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Cruise line would team with Golden Gate Bridge

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A landmark way to raise $500,000

By Mark Prado, IJ reporter

Golden Gate Bridge officials are considering promoting a cruise line with various ads on district property in return for at least $500,000 a year, money that would be put toward the third phase of a seismic retrofit project.

The proposed corporate partnership with Celebrity Cruises is uncharted territory for the financially strapped bridge district, and drew some criticism from members of the Finance-Auditing Committee yesterday.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," said board member Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, after the plan was heartily endorsed by board member Cynthia Murray, a Marin supervisor. "What looks good now may come back to bite us later," Ammiano said. "We need time to absorb this. It's like a big old fat carrot, but what's attached to that carrot?"

But Murray and others said the plan made sense.

"I am excited about this. I think it's great," she said, later adding, "It's our fiduciary responsibility to find money. Everyone is starting to do this type of thing. We need new, entrepreneurial ways to get out of this fiscal mess. This is also a safety issue."

The plan - approved in concept by the committee yesterday - calls for the district to provide free advertising space at its ferry terminals, on at least 20 buses and in each issue of the transit guide produced by the district. There could also be advertising on ferries if the district changes its policy, which prohibits ads on its boats. The free ads would cost the district about $50,000. There are no plans for advertising on the span.

In return, the bridge district would get at least $500,000 but could get more than $1 million from Cele-brity, according to company officials.

"We think there is a significant upside to that number ($500,000)," said Lynn Martenstein, Celebrity spokeswoman.

The cruise line would also appeal to its "Captains Club" members - a group of 585,000 return passengers - to contribute to the project with Celebrity matching any donation of up to $100 with a credit on a future cruise. Those and other efforts could bring in more cash for the bridge.

Celebrity could also solicit money through print, radio and television ads, possibly as public service announcements, trumpeting the seismic plan.

Owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Celebrity has nine ships and has about 700,000 passengers each year worldwide. Celebrity's interest in the Bay Area is tied to a plan to expand ridership on the West Coast from 70,000 annually to 160,000 by next year. In California, the company has ports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The program would be a demonstration project and last for a year and could be extended for two additional one-year terms. Either party can get out of the agreement.

The bridge board of directors will take up the issue today and if it approves the concept, the plan would be tweaked and brought back for a final vote within 30 days. The program would go into place next year.

The seismic retrofit project is budgeted for $392 million. Two phases have been paid for, but the final $160 million third phase remains unfunded. Bridge officials will seek $113 million from the federal government for the work, but will try to find the remaining $47 million on their own. Money from Celebrity would go to the third phase, which address the middle of the span.

In addition to facing bridge work costs, the district is also projecting a $108 million deficit over the next five years, a figure announced yesterday.

The district has considered corporate partnerships before, but ultimately backed away. CarOrder.com caused a stir in 1999 when it proposed paying tolls for drivers and hanging a banner at the toll plaza for one day to promote the business. In addition to paying tolls, it would give the district $400,000. That plan never got off the ground.

Some board members detested that plan, saying it smacked of crass commercialization of a public landmark.

Bridge officials note other public agencies, such as the National Park Service, have similar corporate partners. They also said the bridge district is more likely to get federal dollars for the seismic work if it shows it is taking its own initiatives.

But there was caution yesterday.

"The Golden Gate Bridge is in a class by itself," board member Janet Reilly of San Francisco said yesterday. "If we pursue corporate sponsorship we need to look at it closely. We need due diligence."

Al Boro, board member and San Rafael mayor, said the plan looked good to him.

"We have talked about non-traditional sources of revenue and this is that," he said. "Overall this is a great step forward."

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