Saint Consulting Case Study
With over 30 years of experience on over 2000 challenging projects in 48 US states and 5 countries, we have seen it all. This is one of our favorites.
The client wanted to build four Class A office buildings in an upper-middle-class city in which 90 percent of the land was zoned residential and development of any kind was looked on with suspicion. The client had assembled a 55-acre site, of which 14 acres were zoned for office park use and the rest for residential use, allowing development of two office buildings in one area and 47 homes in the other. The client had worked with city officials to give up the residential aspect and instead rezone the land to allow four office buildings on 26 of the 55 acres. The client agreed to turn the remaining 29 acres into a passive green-space park with running trails and picnic areas, and to donate the land to the city.
But when the planning commission hearing on the plan arrived, opponents packed the hearing and spent two hours criticizing the proposal. Although the commission voted six to two in favor of the plan, the hearing gave opponents impetus, and they quickly mobilized, adding members through a petition drive, a neighbor-to-neighbor postcard program in wealthy subdivisions, yard signs, and numerous letters to the editor, all opposing the project.
The client retained Saint Consulting to overcome the opposition. The Saint team began building a grassroots coalition to serve as the public face of citizen support, starting with business owners, adding members of two homeowners’ associations whose homes abutted the site and who supported the park, and reviving a dormant environmental group also in favor of passive green space. As support built, Saint developed a mail piece to be sent from the coalition, not the client, and neighbor-to-neighbor letters from organization leaders to their members, thereby enhancing the grassroots basis of support.
Key to victory was tailoring the message, and key to that effort was identifying the audience. Using membership lists from business, homeowner, and environmental organizations, as well as signature sheets from old petition drives, Saint’s team was able to identify and categorize supportive voters and tailor the message. Saint staffers had developed a voter file that identified each of the 5,500 people who had voted in a previous special election on a green-space tax. To the group who likely voted for the tax, Saint’s outreach stressed the additional green space the project would provide. To those who likely voted against the tax, Saint stressed the tax revenue an office park would generate, in contrast to residential development, which would place additional burdens on the tax base. Meanwhile, with targeting completed, the Saint team was able to identify additional supporters and activate their involvement in the project’s citizen group. Since commission members were elected at-large, the team was able to apply pressure on targeted members, based on intelligence from local residents and the client, by engaging citizens to generate phone calls, e-mail, and letters to the decision makers.
On the night of the commission vote, more than 225 residents packed the commission chambers. Unlike the situation at the original hearing, project supporters clearly dominated the crowd. This time, citizens from Saint’s coalition rose, spoke, and presented a red-dot map of the city demonstrating that coalition members lived in every precinct in every area. After several hours of citizen testimony and debate among commission members, the board voted to approve the project by a vote of five to two.
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