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The Odyssey of Naming a New Park

The Downtown Space's Moniker - to be Revealed Monday - is one of `Exploration'

Houston Chronicle
October 15, 2006

By MIKE SNYDER

The explorer archetype is a powerful theme in classical literature, from Odysseus' quest to find his way home in Homer's Odyssey to the narrator's search for spiritual revelation in Dante's ``Divine Comedy.''

These ideas might seem a bit high-concept for choosing the name of a 12-acre park in downtown Houston, but the people developing the park were determined to select a "brand" that would help forge a strong connection between the park and the community.

The result of their efforts will be revealed Monday, when leaders of the nonprofit Houston Downtown Park Conservancy will announce the name chosen from among some 6,200 entries in a public contest.

"The personality that we realized that we're going after is one of exploration with kind of a dash of magic thrown in," said Guy Hagstette, the conservancy's park director.

Accordingly, the firm the conservancy hired to help select a name settled on the explorer as the primary archetype for the park, with the magician as a secondary theme.

The power of branding

Adam B. Nisenson, the principal and creative director of Active Imagination Inc., said archetypes are as useful in branding as they are in any form of storytelling.

"There are underlying narratives and characters within every person, and people identify with those," Nisenson said. "We help our clients build a compelling story around a personality and an archetype."

In the commercial world, names and images play an important role in connecting products with consumers, Nisenson said. The Harley-Davidson brand summons a sort of outlaw image. A simple swoosh symbol says "Nike" to millions of potential athletic shoe buyers.

The same concepts apply to nonprofit and civic institutions such as parks, Nisenson said.

"There are a lot of parks out there," he said. "How do we differentiate ourself? This park is going to be more of a destination, not just a place with trees and some paths."

The park, near the George R. Brown Convention Center, will include an outdoor amphitheater, a large pond with an area for operating model boats, a putting green, an interactive fountain and two restaurants.

Hagstette said it was important that the name project more than just a passive image of pastoral beauty. "We want this park to be green and natural, but we're about creating a place where Houstonians can come and gather and have a great time."

As they reviewed entries in the naming contest, Hagstette and his colleagues grouped submissions into several categories. There were the traditional names, such as Liberty Park and Houston Commons; names reflecting cultural themes, such as Diversity Park and Katrina Park; natural names such as Mockingbird Park and Gathering Oaks Park; and offbeat ideas such as Chuck Norris Park, Steven Colbert Park and The Big Howdy.

A prize for the winner

The names of all four Houston mayors since 1982 - Kathy Whitmire, Bob Lanier, Lee Brown and Bill White - were offered as possible park names, along with names that carry local historical significance such as Oscar Wyatt Park, Energy Park and Camp Buffalo Park.

The entrant whose name is selected will win dinner for two at a park restaurant, a framed political cartoon by Houston Chronicle cartoonist Nick Anderson and a collection of Houston Astros merchandise.

The conservancy has raised most of the projected $81 million cost of the park, mostly from private sources. Parts of the park are scheduled to open in fall 2007, with the entire park open by January 2008.

DOWNTOWN PARK GROUNDBREAKING:

When: 9:30 a.m. Monday

Where: Avenida de las Americas at Lamar in downtown Houston

Who's invited: Open to the public

Speakers: Mayor Bill White, Houston Downtown Park Conservancy leaders