Changing Adversaries into Allies
By Christopher Hopkins
Getting a quarry expansion or a new greenfield site approved through the local permitting process can be a grind. It will likely be contentious, volatile, and at the end of the day, regardless of the outcome, there will be some hard feelings on both sides of the argument. After all that, when I tell clients, “it wasn’t personal, it was only business,” they sometimes look at me as if I have insulted their mother.
Well, it isn’t personal; it is only business for the most part on both sides. You have to remember that, for the vast majority of Americans, their home is the largest investment they will ever have, and any perceived threat to that asset will spur them to action. The average person has no idea what an aggregate quarry is, how it operates, or what the product is used for. And they definitely have very little reason to trust the large company “ramming it into their backyards.”
The application process on the local, state, and federal levels has become a political process. Decisionmakers want to get re-elected or re-appointed to their positions, so political dynamics make it far more likely that a board of county commissioners will vote to please a roomful of angry voters demanding that a project be denied, rather than defy their constituents — even if those citizens have been riled by misinformation spread in a misguided flyer.
The vast amounts of readily available information on the internet — true or not — adds to the peril. If you are a nationwide company, any past problems at your plant in Bangor, Maine, will be raised as an issue by opponents during a public hearing on your project in Little Rock, Ark. If you are a local company, information about the industry and issues and violations involving other producers can and will be used to attack your application.
Any resident with access to a copy machine and a computer can distribute flyers saying that your new facility will be blasting away the foundations of neighborhood homes, that dust will cause asthma, and trucks will run over children. Whether it is true or not, people can still put it out there. And I guarantee you that if they pass out a thousand of these flyers, 250 people will show up to oppose you at the public hearing.
You actually can combat this, even if you cannot control the deeds of other producers or the industry as a whole.
When you want to increase your quarry footprint or open a new plant in a neighboring community, the local elected officials and other decision makers usually want to approve your project. The reason is simple: the new facility will bring new jobs into the community for which they can take credit, and you will increase the commercial tax base for the city or county where you operate (and unlike a home, you will not be placing children into the local school system). Overall, a new facility is a win for the municipality.
But the decisionmakers are not going to like it enough to put their political futures at risk.
In this day and age, simply dealing with the “power brokers” in town does not get you approvals. You need to garner a trust with the community — residents need to know you, and you need to become part of local fabric. Trust is the most difficult barrier to overcome when reaching out to a neighborhood and natural opponents. Face it, they are inclined to not trust you, and the only way to have them trust you is to demonstrate that the community is not just a place of business for you, that this is your home as well, that you and your employees live here and want what is best for the community. The only way to accomplish this requires time, effort, and communication. Simply writing a check for sponsorship opportunities is not enough by itself. In fact, taking just that step is missing an incredible opportunity.
Creating community goodwill garners long-term results, but it is not a short-term exercise relegated to the times you need to expand your operation or some other permit from the town or county. Those short-term efforts are easily seen for what they are: an attempt to buy approvals through gifts and mitigation. It provides you with no goodwill and can cause a backlash and resentment from your would-be opponents. You will hear comments such as, “They are trying to buy the new quarry,” or “The planning board works for Acme Paving.” True or not, it doesn’t play well among residents or in the media.
The more effective way to conduct community outreach is to make sure your company and employees become part of the community. This effort is going to take time and hard work. Some clients I’ve worked with had already been participating in community activities, and some had not. Those who do get involved find the goodwill they build can be a crucial benefit when they need a demonstration of public support.
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to become involved is through the local school system — “adopting” a grade or two in a local school whose pupils come out once a year, parents and teachers in tow, to tour your facility and play on the trucks and movers. It is a great way for your company to be seen, and can even be enhanced by having your plant manager visit the classroom to teach the students about construction materials and geology. Developing such a partnership will introduce you to teachers, students, parents, and members of the school board. You will likely receive public thanks from the town board, the school committee, or the local PTA.
International producer Cemex has found this very effective tool to use at its plants, according to Cemex Community Relations Manager Jenna Register Emerson. “Many educators have come to bat for us when we have needed them due to our extensive onsite education programs and partnerships,” she says. “For example, we are working on permitting a new mine that has, what do you know, received some pushback, and we are able to rely on these educators to send letters to the commission supporting us and even have them show up to hearings and speak on their partnership with Cemex.
“Most people are misinformed about our industry so by being active and taking an interest in educating our communities this has helped us come out on top. You can turn people’s opinions around just by giving them the right information,” she adds.
Remember that, in most instances, the increased tax revenues generated by your expansion or new development will result in more resources for the local schools (and you can remind the teachers and parents of this when meeting with them at the quarry or in the classroom).
Earth Day is always a great opportunity to showcase your plant and the industry to the public. Not many people immediately equate our industry with being environmentally conscious, but simple programs to commemorate Earth Day can go a long way. Some approaches that have been effective in the past include volunteering a team of your employees to clean up a stretch of roadway, or having a team conduct a tree planting exercise in town, preferably in a busy, visible location. When you do this, your company name and logo should have a prominent placement, so passers by will know who is doing the good work. This is also an excellent time to announce any environmental awards you may have earned over the previous year, locally or through industry organizations. The press should be invited; especially the local newspapers that need articles to fill their pages. At a minimum, a press release should be issued with a photo.
In some communities, we have had clients who align themselves with Little League baseball. They sponsor a team, have an employee coach the team, and the company takes on the responsibility of maintaining the field, which they can do easily enough with their sand, gravel, and other materials. This has resulted in building goodwill with those large numbers of parents and local officials who are involved with youth sports. The company banner can be placed in a prominent place during opening day ceremonies to ensure the firm’s contributions are noticed.
There are countless ways to become visibly involved in the community, and there are significant benefits to being seen as a good corporate neighbor. Each of the examples I have noted provides the chance for your company to interact with the residents, discuss the industry, and, importantly, to collect information about these potential supporters for future use — name, address, phone, and email.
You should start by sending thank-you notes to those who attended the events, and this should form the beginning of a database of recipients for a company or plant newsletter to provide the latest information about the quarry and your operations. This will also be an opportunity for you to receive feedback from the public about any issues they might be upset about. After time, when neighbors and local residents see that they get answers to their questions or responses to their complaints, they will contact you first rather than contacting a city councilor or the mayor. Even though you cannot always give a resident the resolution that they want, just the fact that you are openly communicating with them and creating that relationship will go a long way in being seen as a good corporate citizen.
The real benefit gained from all these efforts will come if and when you seek to expand your operations, add a cement facility, or build an asphalt or ready-mix plant — either locally or in a nearby community or county. With public hearings or public comment required for virtually every permit or approval you seek, the database you’ve built now becomes indispensable. It is OK to send out messages and to ask for support for your application from these people. After all, they independent citizens who can testify about your good corporate citizenship and contributions to the community in which you operate.
“All of the contributions, whether it through monetary support or volunteer efforts, have helped with local opposition with respect to permitting,” says Register Emerson. “It is much harder to oppose an application when you have personally benefited from the local efforts of a company.”
In the end, reaching out to your community is a positive. The effort engages us in conversation with local residents and officials, and gives them a chance to explore our industry, which is not well understood by the average person. Explaining what aggregates are used for, how the average person depends on our product every day, how state-of-the-art all the science is, and how safe an industry this is can go a long way when community support is needed to provide the political justification for local decision makers to vote ‘yes.’
Chris Hopkins is senior vice president for aggregates and mining at The Saint Consulting Group, which specializes in building community support for controversial land use proposals.