Just off I-39 lies rural El Paso, Ill. But it’s hardly a quiet place. Some of its 2,700 residents got pretty worked up in 2007 after learning that Navitas Energy of Minneapolis wanted to build a wind farm in their back yard. It proposed 40 turbines, each peaking at 2 megawatts of electric output. Sitting in Woody’s Family Restaurant on the town’s main drag, roof truss salesman Kevin Moore explains that he worried the proposed windmills could hurt property values, stunt the town’s growth and flick dangerous ice balls. (Navitas says it’s not a problem.) He went to county board meetings with 200 angry citizens, who helped stall Navitas for a year.
Navitas fought back for the hearts and minds of El Paso, bringing in Saint Consulting Group, which boasts the world’s biggest stable of former political campaign managers. Saint tried the good-cop approach, holding a kite-flying event in a park, after surveys showed that residents felt strongly about energy independence, and giving pinwheels to tots at a July 4th parade to promote wind power. It also played bad cop, in part by painting protesters as carpetbaggers. Moore didn’t help his case by living 10 miles south of El Paso and belonging to a group that sued another wind developer in the area. On Aug. 19, 2008 it came down to a vote by the county board, and Navitas won. Wanda Davies, Navitas’ director of development, says project owner Babcock and Brown should be ready to build in 2010. “I think no matter whose back yard they’re in, they just aren’t effective,” says Moore, arguing that wind farms are only tax-fueled boondoggles.
So go the turf battles among rival grass-roots organizations–communities mobilizing against commercial interests, which, in turn, try to co-opt the citizenry. With tens of billions of dollars at stake in projects nationwide, corporations are ripping pages from the playbooks of protesters, politicians and lobbyists to organize constituents faster and far more effectively than in the past. The businesses rely on word of mouth, as well as mass e-mails, online videos and blogs.
Saint Consulting has made a specialty of waging war on behalf of corporate clients desperate to win zoning battles. Charging up to $300 an hour in an average $250,000 project, the Hingham, Mass. firm pulls in $30 million a year deploying political and media experts and lawyers on behalf of casinos, colleges, grocery and retail chains, medical groups, utilities and heavy industries. A rotten economy hasn’t stalled community opposition, says Patrick Fox, Saint’s president: “People think they can win now.”
The firm was founded in 1983 by Paul (Mike) Saint, press officer for former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Thomas P. O’Neill III (son of Tip, former U.S. House Speaker). When O’Neill left office, Saint opened a one-man shop. He made ends meet by doing p.r. and political work but focused in the mid-1990s on land use and met Fox, who was running political campaigns in Massachusetts. They combined skills to push for support of rock quarries, landfills, hospitals and power plants. Saint realized most people couldn’t be won over “by telling them facts or statistics,” he says. “They become passionate, and that translates into political action.” Solution: counter political action with political action.
Saint is currently waging 135 skirmishes in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. Half its clients need help essentially to squelch a competitor’s project–a supermarket chain, say, wants to keep a big box out of town. For obvious reasons clients insist on anonymity. So Saint goes “undercover,” riling up neighbors, turning them against a group or company, quietly offering legal advice, as well as tips on how to organize and turn up political pressure. Fox says some neighbors are suspicious that he’s an enemy plant, though he tells them, “I’m here to help you. I do this across the country.” Funds to pay, say, a traffic expert are sometimes handled through attorneys so they can’t be traced back to Saint or its client. Fox encourages neighbors to hold fundraisers, which further disguises Saint’s fingerprints; often its agents use fake names.
The other half of Saint’s business: clients like Navitas and Hyperion Energy, trying to get a project built. A private oil and gas producer in Dallas, Hyperion wants to build the first new U.S. refinery in 33 years–a $10 billion refinery complex near Elk Point, S.D. it claims would generate 1,800 permanent jobs. That might spare some Elk Point residents the 60-mile round-trip commute to jobs in Sioux City and Sioux Falls. To be financed by an undisclosed amount of bank debt and equity investment, the refinery “is what America needs,” says Preston Phillips, Hyperion’s project manager.
Not everyone sees it that way. Edward Cable, a construction consultant who lives nearby, expects the refinery will provide only half its stated jobs. He believes Hyperion’s annual sales tax benefit–$50 million–is overstated, that the county is ill prepared to handle sudden growth and that “the long-term solution is clearly not in refining outdated fossil fuels.” Organizers launched a ground war before the project was even made public.
Saint parachuted in Jay Vincent, a 34-year-old Chicagoan who has organized for Democratic campaigns. While Hyperion was quietly buying up land options, he stopped by Elk Point’s county building and, without identifying himself, picked up meetings minutes and maps. He chatted up residents in coffee shops and read stories at the public library. Vincent blends into a crowd: “I’m vanilla enough to fit in just about anywhere.”
Coconut, maybe. Rumors spread about the options buying; speculation about the project, nicknamed “Gorilla,” made national news. Ed Cable headed a group called Save Union County, though they didn’t yet know what they were saving it from. After a reporter tied the options to Hyperion, the oil company held a press conference; an attendee posted it on YouTube. A chapter of the Sierra Club found experts on refineries and aquifers.
Shifting into high gear, Saint studied voter files, knocked on doors, asked folks whether they were for or against the project and why. The idea: stop opposition at the doorstep. Pollsters fed what they learned into a database, adding info they bought from vendors, such as who subscribed to what newspapers. That offered further clues about political and environmental leanings, and allowed Saint to craft tailored messages. To those concerned about emissions, it emphasized that the 400,000-barrel-a-day refinery, plus an integrated gasification combined cycle plant, could sequester carbon more cheaply than a coal plant. The north part of the county, Vincent knew, worried especially about economic benefits. So he worked up leaflets and newspaper ads touting jobs and tax advantages.
Hyperion’s two public hearings were open warfare. Opponents trotted out mothers concerned about their kids’ health. Saint encouraged Hyperion to counter speaker by speaker; a mother who said she hoped the project would keep her children in the area. The fight headed to a referendum. When the last vote was counted on June 3, Hyperion had won, 58% to 42%. It is now seeking air permits.
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