Plea to developers - Be open: Philadelphia PA Inquirer, 4/6/07

A consultant prescribes a policy of "extreme engagement" with the public as the way to avoid damaging opposition

By Louis S. Bezich

Recent polls confirm that New Jerseyans want lower property taxes, more open space and less suburban sprawl. However, if redevelopment projects with the potential to advance these worthy goals carry even the hint that eminent domain could be used, they are feverishly opposed.

How then in a state where our future relies on redevelopment do we resolve such conflicts?

A strategy which has proved successful in my experience managing controversial redevelopment projects is what I have labeled "extreme engagement."

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo decision triggered a backlash against eminent domain.

New Jersey has proposed legislation to curb eminent-domain abuse. Nevertheless, the leading legislative proposals appropriately maintain eminent domain as a last resort.

So even with these reforms, projects may still be dogged by eminent-domain opponents no matter how great the public benefits or protections.

In today's ultra-competitive media world, David vs. Goliath stories positioning the oppressed property owner against the powerful developer are the mother's milk of newspaper editors and TV news producers.

They can pump up the underdog to cult status, giving comparatively little column space or air time to the complexities of redevelopment and, more important, the benefits.

For their part, local officials and developers alike have been slow to recognize the need for civic engagement.

Too often it's only after a negative public reaction that officials and developers scramble to get the word out on the details of their projects and solicit public input.

Failure to recognize the value of a comprehensive public-engagement program can threaten or even kill the best-intended projects. Just ask the folks at Cherokee who were thought to be the saviors of East Camden.

As a practitioner of economic development for more than a decade and a local official for almost two, I believe the key to successful economic development in the post-Kelo environment is aggressive civic engagement that educates, informs and makes use of technology.

For projects to overcome both the abstract opposition to eminent domain and the media storm so prevalent in today's environment, officials and developers need to employ strategies that go well beyond even those proposed in the new legislation.

A new model of redevelopment must be built on the principle that good projects are best served by voluntary transparency.

In two high-profile South Jersey redevelopment projects, in Haddon Township and Westville, my firm has advised the developer, Fieldstone Associates, in this strategy.

In both projects, the developer was confronted early on with significant public opposition, based largely on the possibility of eminent domain, even though eminent domain was not used and the developer said it saw it as a last resort.

In every other measure, both projects are case studies in state-encouraged "smart growth," meant to promote urban and suburban revival and reduce sprawl.

While the projects are far from finished and there is still opposition, the public perception of each project is much more balanced as measured by newspaper editorials, the public positions of elected officials and candidates for public office, and, perhaps most important, actual investments in properties adjacent to the redevelopment sites.

The strategies used to build this new model have included developer-sponsored tours; videotaping of public forums for repeated broadcast on municipal cable stations; project Web sites and e-mail forums; direct mailing of project information to every household and business; third-party review; expanded communication with the news media; and disclosure of property-acquisition offers and relocation benefits.

The goal is to bring transparency to a new level so that fair treatment can be distinguished from abuse and the redevelopment debate can advance from the abstract to the specific.

Philadelphia PA Inquirer: http://www.philly.com/inquirer

Louis S. Bezich is president of Public Solutions Inc., a Haddonfield-based economic development consultancy.