The community benefits when everyone is engaged. From the design stage to the public process in securing permits, in addition to raising capital and targeting potential retailers and other tenants, constant engagement is vital to the success of any high profile project.
Developing strategic relationships “early-on” helps minimize risk and helps anticipate barriers to seeing projects to their completion. Effective communications is vital to the public’s understanding of the project and the governments involved in helping the project move forward. Therefore, the company or consortium leading the project should be in control of the process and be proactive with their messaging and outreach.
- A strategic and effective community engagement strategy works to:
- Develop relationships within the community and build trust;
- Educate and inform key stakeholders of the project;
- Listen to the stakeholder input and concerns; and,
- Address any concern-raised in a meaningful and timely way.
Projects will often fail when the project team fails to engage a community early on in the process. Come to the community too late in a project and you have already lost their trust and support, particularly in an industry-heavy community. For example, I was retained to represent a 1800 MW off shore wind proposal in Southwestern Ontario in Lakes Erie and St. Clair. In one day, I led seven public engagement meetings and the public was anything but supportive. They could have been if they were involved early in the process, rather than reading about the project in the newspaper.
On the other hand, I also represented a deep injection well several years after the project was in operation and already cited for environmental violations by a previous owner. The new owner retained me to help improve relationships within the community and work to promote a better understanding of the deep injection process and environmental and economic impact this project would have. So I invited the community into their facility to see the site first hand, to appreciate the technology and see the depth of safeguards and systems they had in place to avoid future problems. After a few years of negotiating with the DEQ and EPA, the injection well became fully operable.
Whether or not a developer is directed by regulation, stakeholder engagement is a necessary part of the process in educating a community, listening to their concerns and engaging them rather than avoiding them. The public needs to be a part of the process. By engaging the community, a developer will have an easier time going to the Mayor for support or getting the city council to agree on their proposal, long before they ultimately need it.
In Detroit, developers are quick to announce projects and share renderings of new buildings. Often however, they build up hope and good media, only to get sidelined by a government or community that stands in the way of implementing a vision.
To make the vision a reality, developers should go to the community first, find the community groups and key influencers they need for support, or at least become aware of their concerns and plan accordingly. This will also improve the developer’s position to seek financing or investors or secure the necessary permits and permissions to move the project forward.
For a project to be successful and to be realized as originally envisioned by the designer, creating a strategy that engages the pubic early, with sufficient information will help build trust, help enhance the project team’s reputation and improve understanding of the project to help reach desired outcomes.
Successful local engagement also will help improve or overcome any legal and regulatory challenges standing in the way, so the next time someone announces a project but doesn’t build it, it won't be because the public's opinion is not on their side.