In siting a project, such as a large scale mixed-use development or a high profile project such as a wind farm, pipeline or even WalMart, it is vital that the developer and construction team seek and obtain input from the community early on in the process and aggressively work to educate the media and other key stakeholders on their plans.
In representing such "public" projects, reaching out to the public must become a vital part of the process, otherwise, the project may be at jeopardy from the start. The community should feel like their voices are being heard and listened to. This will improve the chances of the developer realizing their vision and help strengthen their position to seek financing or investors.
In the example of windfarms, I was retained to represent an 1800 MW off shore wind proposal in Southwestern Ontario in Lakes Erie and St. Clair. In one day, I led 7 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 in the newspaper. Because they read about it they were more emotional about the project than in understanding the big picture and how the developer leading the project was interested in working with the community and their plans for working with the community -- but that message was never heard. So while we listened and responded to their concerns, the project was never implemented. It was not implemented due to regulatory changes in the province, not because of public opinion.
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 with the community to better understand the deep injection process and impact or lack thereof, this project would have. So I invited the community into their facility to see the cite first hand, to appreciate the technology and see the depth of safeguards and systems they had in place to avoid future problems.
Whether directed by law or not, stakeholder engagement is a necessary part of the process, particularly with renewable energy projects. In these type of projects it is important that the community have any necessary information to the project and have an outlet to ask questions, whether it is through a website, twitter feed or in person meetings. In fact, before a project ever begins it is a good idea to engage key stakeholders in a thoughtful dialogue so you know what you are getting into and can anticipate issues and responses. While we knew we would not get the community's support, we wanted to let them know the new owner was aware of their concerns and willing to work with them.
There are other examples, from large scale mixed-use developments set to transform a city to environmental justice issues such as the storage of petroleum coke along a major H20 Highway in the Great Lakes, but they all need a strategic strategy to educate a community, listen to their concerns and engage them rather than avoid 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 their support.
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 government 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 they need for support or at least become aware of their concerns and plan accordingly. This will also improve the developers position to seek financing or investors as it helps tell the project's story.
In other words, for a project to be successful, creating a strategy that engages the pubic early, with sufficient information will help build trust, enhance your reputation and improve understanding of the project to help reach desired outcomes. Successful local engagement, will help improve or overcome any legal and regulatory challenges standing in the way so the next time someone announces a project, it won't be because the public's opinion is not on their side.