Look out, Joyce Kilmer.
Your poetry may be timeless, but as the name of a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop, your days may be numbered.
James Simpson, the new commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, is contemplating selling naming rights to the turnpike's rest stops as he scrambles for new revenue.
"The 'Nike Stop' . . . maybe that would be worth $10 million," Simpson said in a recent interview, pondering ways to wring more money out of turnpike concessions.
(It might also prompt a new verse of Kilmer's "Trees": I think that I shall never see/A rest stop lovely as Nike.)
The turnpike's 12 rest stops are named for historical figures who lived in New Jersey, from presidents (Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland) to poets (Kilmer and Walt Whitman). But there's not much money in marginally famous dead people - though Alexander Hamilton is memorialized on the $10 bill as well as the rest stop at southbound Mile 111.
Simpson, trying to help Gov. Christie overcome an $11 billion budget deficit, sees potential profit in sprucing up the stops and selling their names to the highest bidders.
Could Molly Pitcher be replaced with Pottery Barn? Or Thomas Edison with Intel? Will Vince Lombardi be sacked by Reebok?
"We're just in the early discussion stages – throwing around ideas and asking questions – but that's what leads to creative solutions," Simpson said. He said naming rights also might be sold for the eight rest areas on the Garden State Parkway.
"About two million motorists use the turnpike and parkway every day," Simpson said. "I want to maximize the value of the 20 rest stops that serve those people. . . . What could we get for naming rights, $500,000 a year, $1 million?"
Simpson said more attractive rest stops, with airport-like amenities and Jersey-theme restaurants, could turn the areas into "a pleasant diversion."
Turnpike spokesman Joe Orlando said no value estimates had been determined, but "we are definitely on board with exploring the possibilities."
What is a rest-stop name worth?
Probably not $10 million a year, says Eric Smallwood, vice president of Front Row Marketing Services and an expert in naming rights.
"That's a very aggressive number," Smallwood said. "Ten million a year is north even of what football stadiums are getting. Are these rest stops on national TV every week?"
Without traffic studies and market analyses, it would be hard to put a value on the rest stops, Smallwood said.
But he noted that Geico was prepared to pay $1.6 million a year to have its name plastered on toll plazas on the George Washington Bridge, before Port Authority officials backed out of the deal in 2007. The same agency got $1.7 million a year from HSBC for ads in the walkways to planes at Kennedy International and La Guardia Airports in New York.
Maybe a rest-stop name is worth $1 million a year, Smallwood ventured.
Chicago and the state of Illinois toyed with the idea of selling naming rights to toll-road rest areas and even the Chicago Skyway toll road itself, he said. But no deals were struck.
The idea is not entirely new to New Jersey. In 2007, Gov. Jon. S. Corzine proposed raising money by creating an agency to take over the state's toll roads and possibly selling naming rights to toll-road concessions.
Local historians are not keen on the notion of exchanging the names of patriots and poets for corporations and companies.
"It's kind of shameless," said Paul Schopp, a historian and author who lives in Riverton. "I understand the need for money, but to replace the name of historic figures with the name of someone because he's got enough bucks to have a rest stop named after him?
"What's next? Naming rubbish cans along the street in Camden or Newark? . . . At what point do we stop trading our values and history just for the almighty dollar?"
The historical figures celebrated on the turnpike give New Jersey its character, said Lisa Fox-Pfeiffer, executive director of the Burlington County Historical Society in Burlington City. "To take them away would be a step in the wrong direction. These are people we can be proud of," she said.
"We would like to see them stay. But many are not relevant to people - they're not taught in school," Fox-Pfeiffer said. "We're doing our best to change that."
At the same time, "I see the profit angle," she said. "If the money [from naming rights] goes to historical commissions or a preservation fund, then you might be able to barter away the names."
Turnpike rest stops are utilitarian places, not eye-catching monuments to human endeavor, noted Howard Gillette, author and professor of history at Rutgers University in Camden. So maybe it's not so bad to lose the names.
They're different from bridges, which are "monumental presences and give identity to the region, like the Walt Whitman Bridge, Ben Franklin Bridge, or Betsy Ross Bridge," Gillette said.
"I wouldn't see it as a huge sacrifice to get more money by naming rest stops," he said.
"In some cases, like with Vince Lombardi" - whose stop is in Ridgefield Borough, Bergen County - "there is a generation that won't even know who it was. Many won't know who the poet [Joyce Kilmer] is.
"I would love to see more history at rest stops. If we're going to keep the names, let's give the visitors more information about them. You got a name, but nothing to back up the name."
Sandy Levins, president of the board of trustees of the Camden County Historical Society in Camden, does not dismiss the idea that corporations might have presence on the turnpike.
"The other week, I passed the Joyce Kilmer rest stop and thought about his poetry. Some of the [stops'] names trigger the thoughts that there is important, worthwhile history in New Jersey," she said.
"You could keep the name and add a corporate sponsorship. The corporation could add a sign that speaks of sponsorship. That way they could be seen as getting behind the history of New Jersey."