Building Community Support for Project Permitting, Construction, and Marketing

Redevelopment is replacing new construction throughout the Greater Boston area, as construction costs climb and the commercial/retail vacancy rate reaches new (and alarming) levels.

Redevelopment of highly visible, publicly owned or historic properties~ such as shipyards, air bases, and historic mills ~ involves all the usual steps of Federal and State permitting and approvals, and the additional layer of permitting involving historic, archeological and cultural review and approvals.

At every one of these steps, community or political opposition can bog a project down, and that means lost time, lost revenues, and significant expenses while people and equipment sit idle, as developers go back to the designers, planners, and lawyers for revisions. Just as important is the potential negative public relations impact on development plans: once opposition becomes vocal and reaches the media, it can spread like wildfire, creating additional challenges and expenses for the developer.

Redevelopment projects can displace people and create opposition, and develop a negative momentum that's hard to turn around. But, with longer-term planning and community involvement, redevelopment can help communities feel a sense of investment, involvement and continuity by engaging the community in celebrating its past to build its future.

Engaging the Community Proactively

The Hingham Shipyard project developed by Paul Trendowicz, President of Sea Chain, Inc. is a case in point of positively and proactively engaging the community around redevelopment. The former Bethlehem Steel Shipyard was built in 1942 to support the war effort. The shipyard produced 277 ships, and employed 30,000 people. It was closed in 1986, and bought in 1997 by Sea Chain, Inc., as the site for a $250 million redevelopment project for mixed use; high end condominium residential units, some affordable housing, and 200,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.

Public relations and community relations were part of Sea Chain's strategy from the beginning, to win community support for the project throughout the planning, construction and marketing phases. The development was to be called Hingham Shipyard and the history of the place and its community would be part of its cachet.

As part of the community relations project, public relations counsel The Cohn Group proposed the creation of a foundation on site to preserve the history of the Hingham Shipyard and integrate it into the community's awareness of the project as it progressed. Sea Chain helped create and fund the Hingham Shipyard Historical Foundation, a nonprofit organization that would acquire and make available historic and archival information and memorabilia.

The Foundation in turn funded the lynchpin of the community relations program: creation of a thirty minute, broadcast quality video, in which the people who had worked in the shipyard told its story through their own recollections of the war years and the shipyard's contribution to a growing community.

An advisory group of prominent local citizens was created, and helped to identify the individuals, stories, archives, and private and public archives of mementos from the shipyard's peak production years of building ships.

The video includes historic news footage, photographs and interviews with employees who stayed on in Hingham and built their families after the war.

The video, "Remembering Hingham Shipyard," was edited to a format suitable for airing on WGBH, which accepted it not only for broadcast but for repeat showing during pledge weeks, and for use, by the Social Studies Department of Hingham Schools. It was shown for the first time at a community gala at the shipyard's main building, and was attended by some 500 local Hingham residents, including town and regional officials. Throughout the process, the video and the Sea Chain plan were covered consistently, favorably and from a variety of perspectives by local daily and weekly papers, reinforcing a groundswell of community support.

Positive Media Coverage Sustained

Throughout the process, the local media, especially daily and weekly papers, were invited to meet with the developers, advisers and featured residents, to learn more about the shipyard's history and the redevelopment project. Outreach resulted in a steady drumbeat of positive coverage, as individual storylines created multiple opportunities for news and feature articles. Most articles and editorials mentioned Sea Chain and credited it for underwriting the Foundation and the video, praising the developer's commitment to the community.

In March 2001, The Patriot Ledger's Carrie Levine wrote, "If all goes according to plan, the Hingham shipyard will soon resemble an upscale shopping center rather than a former military installation. But those nostalgic for the shipyard's glory days- when workers built destroyers during WWII- are in for a treat ? Sea Chain, which plans to develop the site with condominiums and thousands of feet of retail space, funded the video, and has said they plan to include a historical center in the new plans. The redevelopment proposal is scheduled to be heard before town boards next month."

James Kirkcaldy, Director, K-12 Hingham Social Studies Department, wrote that "The Hingham Shipyard Project is a great teaching tool? a lasting legacy? and a unique example of a redevelopment project with care and patriotic spirit making a difference in a community's identity."

Ultimately, the Planning Board's approval of the plan cited the video and the foundation as a major influence in approving the permits throughout the pr ocess, as evidenced by commentary of many local leaders in the community, the conservation commission, the Planning Board itself, and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Lessons Learned

Even though the developer and the Planning Board did not agree on all requests, a positive and mutually respectful relationship continues. Sea Chain's Paul Trendowicz told The Hingham Journal, "The (Board's) contributions have resulted in numerous improvements to the redevelopment plan for the shipyard. The board's attention to design and legal issues and to defense of community values should be appreciated by the town, as they are by Sea Chain and its consultants."

Community relations that acknowledge the importance of the history of a place and how its community connects to it can greatly improve the chances of a smooth development and permitting process, as the Hingham Shipyard did in several specific ways:

? The early development of a foundation to anchor the program as a nonprofit project established credibility and public interest

? Building a community advisory board brought in respected community opinion leaders as a source of ideas, and these early adopters became constructive critics and champions of the overall project.

? Engaging the community in telling its story created a deep investment throughout the community in seeing the project through, and appreciation for the Foundation that would preserve its history and their stories for future generation.

? Sea Chain built up a reserve of good will by proving itself a good corporate neighbor, and learned in the process what problems would arise, and what compromises would be workable for all concerned.

? The permitting process was completed in a smooth process and in good time, with the constant interest and support of local papers and people.

Sea Chain has created a cachet about the Hingham Shipyard which will give it prestige and interest in the marketing phase: it's a property people will be glad to own and lease, in part, because of its intelligent use of history in creating a new future for the community.

In The Hingham Journal, editor Mary Ford wrote, "? thanks to the developers and the Hingham Shipyard Historical Foundation, area citizens who will someday occupy the shipyard condominiums won't forget how local members of what Tom Brokaw calls "The greatest Generation" made a contribution on that same piece of waterfront property that helped turn the tide of war."

"Redevelopment projects take a substantial commitment of time and resources", says Trendowicz, "and we wanted the community to know we respected its history enough to honor it, and make it part of the distinctive nature of the project. It was a win-win approach."

Marty Cohn and Ann Getman are senior level public relations practitioners and frequent collaborators, with over 20 years experience each. They can be reached at http://www.cohngroup.com or http://www.getmanpr.com

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