Saint Consulting was retained to help a client build the first new U.S. oil refinery in 30 years in a rural, mostly agricultural corner of the Midwest. Saint needed to get more than five square miles of agricultural land rezoned in a county where the planning and zoning commission had recently proposed creation of an agricultural preservation district.
By the time Saint was retained, the client’s real estate consultant had been in the field buying options in his own name, already creating a buzz. An enterprising reporter did a Web search of his name and discovered that he had worked for an oil company, fueling wide speculation about what was being planned for the site. The reporter followed through with another Internet search and found several registered Internet domains that mentioned the client, and all cover was essentially blown. There was nothing to do but launch crisis management by rounding up as much local and state political support as possible and announcing the project at a press conference before opponents could characterize and define it in the public mind.
Our research had shown that neighbors in the project area opposed any type of development, let alone a $10 billion, 400,000 barrel-per-day oil refinery on 3,300 acres of land. Unanswered, the swirling rumor mill and organized opposition could easily have killed the project then and there. Immediately, several opposition groups sprang up, including one that launched an exhaustive website that let the client have it with both barrels:
- The group warned that the “huge petroleum-based oil refinery and coke-burning power plant” would be placed “amid the tranquil fields and rolling hills,” causing quality of life issues that might well “outweigh any so-called economic benefits.”
- The group issued a blanket indictment of all refinery operators as bad corporate citizens, if not criminals. The opponents scoured the Internet for stories on other companies’ accidents, spills, pollution, and health and safety issues. What’s more, they said, “fossil fuel refineries have a history of environmental violations.”
- The group contended that health studies showed increased levels of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in communities near a refinery.
- The group lambasted the client for having the nerve to describe the project as a “green facility,” which it called an attempt to deceive the public.
- The group raised air quality issues and argued that the project would endanger the water supply.
- The group claimed that traffic and the “constant noise” from the refinery would be an issue and asserted that “the buffer zones may not be enough to muffle the sound for those used to the quiet rural life.”
- The group argued that stargazers would never again enjoy a clear, moonless night, and that light from the project “may seem more like Las Vegas than their previously unspoiled rural setting.”
- The group warned that only a small percentage of the 8,000 workers needed to build the facility would be from the area, while the rest would come from elsewhere, “possibly other countries,” and “would bring their families.” The school system would have to expand, they asserted; there would be a rise in crime, and “a new jail and courthouse will have to be built.”
- The group argued that although the newcomers’ need for housing would provide a temporary boost to the local economy, they would all move on when the project ended, leaving “a glut of empty houses” as well as “a depressed business economy” and “an overburdened tax structure for the rest of us.”
- The group asserted that the wage scales for jobs at the refinery would prove inadequate, and then launched personal attacks against members of the client’s management team who had made political contributions, before going after the local planning and zoning commission.
- The group argued that “thousands of acres of prime agricultural land that would benefit the ethanol and bio-diesel industry will be taken out of production” and prevented from “being used to support environmentally friendly fuel production.”
- Finally, the group took a swipe at their neighbors who, they said “should not be blamed for ‘selling out,’” but who would move from the area, leaving those who remained behind to deal with “the politicians and the so-called rich and powerful” to “prevent potential catastrophe.”
This was strong stuff, particularly as the website operators kept a downloadable archive of all the news stories, reports, editorials, letters to the editor, press releases, and video recordings of the hearings and meetings related to the project, which they called the “Gorilla.” The Saint team also knew that there would likely be massive national opposition to the project and that preparation for those attacks needed to be done well in advance.
Once the project was announced, Saint’s project manager launched a countywide outreach program with five universes: local citizens, local elected officials not charged with making the decision, chambers of commerce in the area and region, organized groups ranging from environmentalists to tax abatement organizations, and businesses, with special emphasis on those that would benefit most from the project. One day after the announcement, Saint’s team was in the field, armed with a 13,000-person voter list and with a campaign manager assigned to each large town in the county. Saint invested two months in organizing support and engaging citizens, arranging house parties, developing a list of 4,000 supporters and 150 super-supporters, and preparing for the application filing and the start of the public hearing process.
Meanwhile, Saint’s project manager advised the client to hire lawyers locally and lawyers with significant experience and national presence in the petroleum business, to get environmental planners to create plans and elevations, to have some permitting experts pull together numbers on emissions and pollution controls, and to have project engineers provide data on the heights and dimensions of buildings and towers so the necessary zoning relief, either as variances or as limitations in a planned unit development (PUD), could be determined. Saint was immediately charged with building the team to get it done. The firm quickly researched national law firms, narrowed the list to six, and selected one. Saint then hosted a two-day summit, involving 15 lawyers, to block out the language for the planned development ordinance the project needed, and began to get a draft ready to submit to the county. At this point, the client had not even met with anyone at the county level about the plans: while the project had support in the state capital, the decision would be made locally. Saint staff spent a month before the application was formally filed prepping the county board, informing the members about the plan and answering their questions, while simultaneously building a team of the project’s identified supporters. Saint’s project manager devised a kiosk-style forum to inform the public, where citizens would enter a large room with stations for each facet of the project and approval process, all done with without speeches or presentations. Over three days, more than 1,000 people attended and left the forum mostly in support—despite opponents’ efforts to hijack the event.
With the application filed, the process proceeded. The planning commission would make a recommendation, followed by the county board vote, followed in this case by a referendum vote of the citizenry that the client wanted to demonstrate good corporate citizenship and to provide the public officials with political cover. Opponents could hardly object to a proposal to let the people decide, and Saint’s team members knew that they could run a better political campaign than the opposition could.
At the planning commission hearing, Saint’s team packed the house with supporters—more than 350 to the opposition’s 150. After a five-hour hearing, the project won a supportive vote of four to one. At the county board meeting, Saint turned out a crowd of 300 for the four-hour hearing; no vote was taken that night because of the county board’s rules. While the client waited for a vote over the following days, opponents issued a critical report drafted by a consultant at the behest of project opponents in an attempt to shatter public opinion. This report asserted that the process was moving too fast, raised questions about the project and the process, and urged delay and reconsideration.
With some amendments to the PUD ordinance that answered these concerns, the project finally won a unanimous five to nothing vote from the county board, and launched into the home stretch: the countywide referendum. Three weeks after the county vote, Saint submitted more than 1,000 voter signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Over the next several weeks, the team executed the campaign strategy, building a local staff, engaging paid canvassers, covering the 13,000-person voter universe six times, issuing multiple mail pieces, and preparing for the final push to election day. In the end, the project won handily by a vote of 58 percent to 42 percent, with 3,932 voters in favor and 2,855 opposed.
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