Covid-19: New Challenges and Opportunities

The Covid-19 crisis is likely to be the greatest disaster of our lifetime with implications that will extend for years to come. The changes to society, business, politics and public perceptions will be extensive with both new challenges and opportunities for developers and all companies operating in the public sphere. 

 In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.

NOW IS THE TIME TO GO BIG AND GO BOLD

Rethink your project pipeline.

There are many unknowns as we move forward through and beyond this public health crisis but one thing is certain. There will be devastating impacts to state, county and municipal budgets for years. The drive to make up for lost revenues to fund basic government services and to service the debt we are incurring will be intense. Pressure to limit the impact on taxpaying families will open the doors to ideas previously unthinkable. 

  • That casino in Manhattan the gaming industry has long dreamed of … now is the time.
  • States that have yet to legalize adult use marijuana will do the math and overcome their objections.
  • Development projects held back because they are too large, generate too much traffic, or incur scary abutter opposition will see a stark difference in the attitudes of approving bodies.

Projects moved to the back of your pipeline because they seemed too difficult, too controversial, too big … now is the time. Go big and go bold.

There will be a reshuffling of priorities and tax revenue, jobs and economic development impacts are moving to the top of the list. Quantify project benefits on a per household/family or per taxpayer basis and highlight job creation and economic development potential. The power of small but loud groups of abutters or special interest “CAVE People” (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) will be much less impactful. Residents educated on project benefits and economic impacts will be much more likely to demonstrate support and provide officials with the political cover they need to find the courage to approve new projects they will desperately need anyway.

PUBLIC HEARINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME

Rewrite your playbook

Some communities have public hearings on hold completely meaning nothing is moving forward. Others are trying to use video or audio conference meetings to keep going with limited to mixed success. The packed public hearing with angry constituents is no more for a while and maybe forever.

“Elected and appointed officials act and react differently in front of a room full of angry constituents.”

Public hearings and meetings may never be the same. For the next couple of years, even under best case scenarios, you need to throw out the old playbook and rewrite your strategic game plan. There is both good news and bad news here, but you need to understand it, prepare for it and build it into your strategy going forward.

The traditional public approvals process is an opponent driven system. Opponents are typically passionate, motivated, loud and they show up. On many issues, a survey of the entire community demonstrates broad and solid support, but all the public officials see and hear is constituent outrage and screams.

Efforts have been discussed to broaden participation in the process to level the playing field and get a more representative sample of constituents involved in the process but there has been little success in moving this forward. It’s going to happen now.

Small groups can completely change the dynamics and politics of a local hearing or community meeting. They dominate the room.

What happens when:

  • There is no actual room. It’s a public video or audio conference.
  • Elected and appointed officials do not have to walk a gauntlet of angry constituents or stand eye to eye before them.
  • A broader cross-section of the public participates because they can now do it from the comfort of their couch.
  • Officials and staff have the power to cut off speakers and not allow follow-up questions or comments. (“Thank you for your comment. Next caller ….”)

The power of small groups to dominate the process will be substantially reduced in this new reality.  Getting residents who are more moderate to participate rather than just impacted abutters or others with personal agendas will be much easier and there will be significantly less constituent pressure on local officials to place the concerns of smaller active stakeholder groups over what is considered best for the broader community.

This will require a new outreach strategy focused on the best presentation in these new meeting formats. This is a moving target as communities are still experimenting and figuring this out. 

Don’t think you can proceed as usual.
Nothing about this will be what you are used to seeing.

While this lessens the power of the NIMBYs, it increases the importance of what happens before these public meetings and the power of the relationships you build early in these communities. One on one in-person meetings with local officials are going to be tough if not impossible so building relationships and trust will be challenging.

Some meetings cannot go virtual. New England communities that use a Town Meeting form of government may need to make major changes. There is no easy way to make a Town Meeting virtual or to hold one with social distancing. The necessity for zoning changes and other votes to keep the economy moving will mean a push to find a fast solution. Stay on top of that discussion to make sure the new system is fair for you and you are ready to engage in it successfully. 

DIGITAL OUTREACH MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER

Rethink community outreach

Every developer starts with a huge handicap to overcome. They are a developer. They are often perceived as coming to town looking for something and their priority is getting what they want and not preserving or enhancing the character of the community.

Overcoming that handicap is best done in person and face to face. A solid handshake and looking someone in the eye to let them know you understand and care about their concerns and stand behind your promises goes a long way. You may have no faith in the motives or promises of Acme Corporation, but you are more likely to trust a person to whom you can relate.

“That Terry Thompson person sure seemed nice and promised to address our concerns.”

Community outreach in most of its usual forms is no longer viable. Public space meetings, informational sessions, charettes, door to door introductions, kitchen table meetings, senior center events, restaurant or coffee shop events, receptions … all gone.

What’s left? 

  • Social media
  • Telephone town halls
  • Video conference calls
  • Video presentations
  • One on one calls to key stakeholders
  • Direct mail
  • Email

What’s left is significantly less direct. No eye to eye contact. Real connections and relationship building will be very difficult. 

This will require more foundational work early in the process and, ideally, longer project lead times. It may be more necessary to carefully engage or partner with local, known and respected people who already have relationships and credibility.

Social media becomes much more important as a tool to educate, target, identify potential supporters, and respond rapidly to rumors and attacks. Getting in early – as early as possible – can ease the way and build a new path for controversial projects or initiatives. Using social media to help define the problem before you come in and offer a solution has proven highly successful and will be even more important under the restrictions caused by social distancing. 

DEFINE YOURSELF BY WHAT YOU DO TODAY

Years from now people will still be talking about what they did right now and how they handled chaos and quarantine.

What will your company be able to say they did when it really counted? There are relief funds to donate to and necessary actions to keep staff, customers and the public safe … but that’s the baseline. Pretty much everyone is doing that.

  • What did your company do when it really mattered?
  • How did you step up and demonstrate that you are a responsible operator, a good corporate neighbor, and a beneficial community partner?

Think of the communities and municipalities in which you operate or hope to build and expand. You will be before them making the case that you are the developer or operator they can trust and the kind of neighbor they should want in their community.

What is on the list of things you have done that demonstrate you are the community partner they want and that you are not just another profit-driven company looking to get something from them? 

Reverse engineer that list.

  • Think hyper-local.
  • Assess community needs and local groups trying to address them.
  • Look at groups focused on school kids and food issues, senior citizen housing and senior centers, food pantries and local soup kitchens to start.
  • Consider how to maximize impacts. (Example: Gift certificates purchased from local restaurants and donated to local groups in need.)

No press releases or big announcements are necessary or advisable. This strategy can fit any budget and need not be resource or time intensive. But, it does require some thought, strategy and a bit of research to make sure you are maximizing the opportunity and getting help where it is truly needed. Think local and focus on building strategic long-term relationships where you will need them. 

Not only is it the right thing to do, you will be talking about what you did (or did not) do right now for the next decade. Time and money are not a reason to not get this done and it cannot wait “until things calm down.”

Do it now or you will regret that you missed this opportunity.

The rules are being rewritten in every municipality. There are new threats and tremendous opportunities for those fast enough to act, react and adapt.

Contact us to discuss implementation, project-specific issues and strategic planning.

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