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Inward Investment Guides

From Proposal to Permit: Getting Development Projects Approved

Find out how today’s most controversial commercial and industrial development projects are navigating the approval process and getting the permits to proceed.

Michael Sherry, Campaign Manager, The Calvert Street Group and Darden Copeland, Managing Partner, The Calvert Street Group (Directory 2013)
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Run A Campaign
With an understanding of the political landscape and sources of likely opposition, developers are in a far better position to introduce their project to elected officials and the public.

The project’s rollout is a critical first step and should be accompanied by charm offensives targeting key opinion leaders previously identified in a due diligence assessment. Often this entails one-on-one meetings with reporters, bloggers, editorial boards, and leaders of civic and trade organizations. At these meetings, the project’s designated representative should deliver a clear and concise set of talking points that encompass the basics of the project, the benefits it will bring to the community, and the ways in which the project planners have preemptively addressed or mitigated local concerns. This information should also be made available on a well publicized website and via a social media campaign.

Having introduced the project, the hard work of coalition building begins. Bring on board as many organizations and associations as possible — the local chamber of commerce is a good place to start in many communities. However, smaller and more civic-minded groups are also important to include for encouragement. Their support lends a local, neighborhood-friendly imprimatur to the development, and they will often buy in once the project team takes the time to ask for their input. Also critical at this time is arranging for personal conversations with abutters and residents close to the project site; these individuals could form the core of a NIMBY opposition group if ignored. While some nearby residents will be immovable, some will be genuinely receptive if they feel their concerns are at least being acknowledged and mitigated.

The point of all this coalition building is to have a ready-to-deploy army of supporters and advocates for key meetings and public hearings related to the development’s approval. At critical junctures along the path to a permit (which should already have been mapped out in a political due diligence report), it will be vital to turn these supporters out to speak in favor of approval.

This process creates a virtuous cycle, in which positive media coverage begets easier coalition building, which begets strong supporter presence at hearings, which begets positive media coverage. This was the process that Volkswagen undertook in pushing for a 1,900,00-square-foot auto assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July of 2008. This past May, the facility celebrated its 100,000th Passat rolling off the line.

In Sum

To the casual observer, it can sometimes seem as though development approval is dictated by roulette wheel, where projects are permitted or rejected irrespective of their technical merits. This is half true. Developments don’t succeed solely because of a sharp business plan or intelligent design. Indeed, we’ve observed many such well-planned, economically beneficial projects come out on the short end of a 5-4 vote. But the approval process is not random.

Instead, permits are allocated through a system in which politics, strategic communication, and public education are sometimes more important than site plans and economic studies. Learning how to navigate the political pressure points impacting the development is the way that large projects will win in the years to come.
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