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With the number of older adults rapidly growing throughout the country, each week brings news of new senior living communities opening — but also stories of projects being scuttled and developers being sued by people who oppose this type of construction in their neighborhoods. Preventing these “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) protests requires more than smart site selection: It takes an early and concerted marketing effort to win support well before ground is broken.
“I absolutely believe it’s a marketing issue,” says Kelly Cook Andress, owner and president of Sage Senior Living, which manages assisted living communities in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Her point is reinforced by leaders of other senior living companies and marketing experts who specialize in development-phase strategies. To get a project off the ground smoothly and without incurring unnecessary costs, they say it’s crucial to communicate proactively with neighborhood residents and other stakeholders, make adjustments based on feedback, and know how to deal with die-hard protesters.
Make contact early and often
For developers, a senior living project might seem like an obvious boon to a community, offering increased tax revenue and enabling aging parents to stay close to children and grandchildren.
Yet, these and other advantages often are not self-evident to the people living in the neighborhood where the development is planned, meaning that the senior living company is smart to do early outreach to garner support — and to hear what concerns the planned construction has sparked.
Some of these concerns are predictable, such as worries about increased traffic. This typically is the “biggest issue,” says Al Maiorino, president of public affairs firm Public Strategy Group, Inc. People tend to worry about noisy ambulance and police traffic in particular, he tells SHN.
The second major concern is simply altering the nature of the community, such as by introducing more density into an area with mostly single-family homes, Maiorino says. It’s a point echoed by Dan Reingold, president and CEO of RiverSpring Health, a multifaceted senior living and services provider in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, in New York City.
“There’s a strong sense of ‘This is my view, my street,’” Reingold tells SHN. “No community really loves the notion of a big construction project going on.”
RiverSpring Health has expanded steadily in Riverdale, and Reingold has encountered community resistance to the four different building projects undertaken during his time with the organization. RiverSpring Health is the umbrella brand that includes the Hebrew Home at Riverdale skilled nursing facility. The organization offers a variety of senior housing and care services throughout the New York City area and is based on its 32-acre campus in the Bronx. Currently, RiverSpring Health is planning to construct a continuing care retirement community on a property next to its existing buildings, and Reingold decided to take a different, more proactive approach.
“If you keep getting hit by a truck, you stop crossing the street into traffic,” he jokes about the decision to engage neighbors differently this time.
The process began with a series of public “charettes” — a term for discussion sessions related to urban planning and development. RiverSpring Health brought simple sketches and concept documents to these meetings and solicited feedback from Riverdale residents.
“This use of the charette allows the process to be much more organic, and allows potential objections to be aired,” Reingold explains. “It prevents a battle after you’ve spent major money on the architect.”
He says the planners have learned a lot from the community input and the charettes have helped secure buy-in for the planned CCRC.
Sage’s Andress also advocates for having public meetings to explain proposed construction and solicit feedback. But the Sage team also goes door-to-door and engages with community members on a highly personal level.
“We give them our personal cellphone numbers,” Andress tells SHN. “We say, ‘If you hear anything wacky [about the project], please call us.”
With this individualized approach, Sage can tailor its messages to each individual.
“Like all marketing, you don’t know what’s going to hit what person,” Andress explains. There’s a complex rationale behind every senior living development, and in one-on-one conversation, the Sage representatives can be selective about which parts of the project to highlight for greatest impact.
They frequently talk about how senior living increases tax revenues without putting more children in schools, how traffic counts actually are relatively low, the number of jobs that will be created, and the stability that comes from building on a vacant or blighted site, Andress says.
Maiorino concurs about the value of face-to-face contact, and he also notes the power of other channels. Particularly if a project is encountering stiffer opposition, a more varied marketing approach might be called for, which could entail direct mail, social media, print efforts and other types of outreach.
The Internet can be a double-edged sword, Maiorino notes. On the one hand, Web ads can be highly effective and are much less costly than traditional print ads. But social media is a platform that can be utilized by opponents of a development as well.
“I’ve seen opposition groups pop up and get 200 Facebook supporters over a weekend,” he warns.
Direct mail might seem old-fashioned, but Maiorino says it should not be overlooked as a method of countering opposition groups. That’s because the volume of email and other Web-based messaging is high, while a person might receive only a few pieces of direct mail each day.
And there are ways of winning support without even pushing the specifics of the project. For example, Andress says that Sage sponsors Little League teams, which costs as little as $250 but signals that her company will contribute positively to the community.
Adapt to input
The development team also needs to be able to take community input and adjust plans accordingly — and communicate about its responsiveness.
Both RiverSpring Health and Sage have been able to do so, leading to a smoother development process and improved community relations.
In response to worries about traffic, RiverSpring Health has agreed to create on-campus roadways to take pressure off public streets, Reingold says. Buildings that ran parallel to streets in initial plans now have been turned perpendicular, so that they don’t block views as completely.
Because Riverdale residents also are very concerned about environmental impacts, RiverSpring Health also quickly voiced support for a proposed greenway along the Hudson River and made its property available.
Traffic patterns also led to adjustments of a recent Sage development. To prevent drivers from cutting through the property to avoid an upcoming traffic light, Sage agreed to cut off back access to the senior living community. However, the township still wanted emergency vehicles to have direct access to the rear of the building, so the answer was to create a berm that ambulances can drive across.
Prospective neighbors also did not like that dumpsters would be visible at the back of the building, prompting Sage to take “a fairly extreme response,” Andress says. A two-story garage was added to the plans, so that the dumpsters would be out of sight, under the building.
When it comes to publicizing these efforts to accommodate requests from the neighborhood, be sure to target influential groups such as homeowners associations and keep communication especially robust with elected officials, Andress advises. Public officials may have to vote to approve plans, so they need assurances that their constituents will support the green light.
“Keep the elected officials apprised,” Andress says. “Say, ‘I just want you to know that we met with these folks and their concerns were ‘X’ and we responded by doing ‘Y.’”
For RiverSpring Health, continual communication involves going beyond the charettes to keep Riverdale residents in the loop as plans change.
“We continue to work with a small group of [Riverdale] representatives who are being very helpful to us,” Reingold says.
The BANANA problem
Even the most proactive organization with finely tuned messaging will not be able to achieve across-the-board support for a new development, so a strong marketing strategy also should account for those people who never will be won over.
If a pre-construction marketing push has been successful, the best strategy might be simply to let these opponents have their say, according to Andress.
She describes a situation in which some neighbors said they would rather see a large convenience store on a site than a senior living community. Sage already had won over most of the neighborhood, so when the opponents pressed their case, they did not rally many people to their side — quite the opposite.
“The township and other community members said, are you crazy?” Andress says.
Some people who protest new developments seem to have a more fundamental objection than “not in my backyard,” giving rise to the acronym BANANA: “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”
Developers also should be on their toes and remain calm when engaging with these types of especially vociferous protesters. Andress has set private meetings with the “loudest naysayers,” only to show up and be confronted by a whole group of people, including lawyers.
“That doesn’t matter,” she says of these situations. “Stick to your story, to the truth [of the development’s benefits], and at least you know their arguments for later on.”
Reingold has adopted the approach that it is better to focus on building productive relationships with reasonable community partners than giving too much attention to immovable opponents.
“Some people you’re never going to make happy, and others are grateful to have a say,” Reingold explains. “Having charettes was not just to prevent adversity. Some of our neighbors had really clever ideas. Why not invite people in?”
While giving too much attention to naysayers might be unproductive, simply ignoring them presents its own perils, cautions Maiorino.
“I’ve seen projects defeated with three opponents and 30,” he says. But he acknowledges that probably 75% of opponents stay opposed. The key is to get a strong base of support to outnumber the protesters — and while organizations like Sage and RiverSpring Health have proven adept at doing this, other senior living operators are not as on the ball.
“Often, you’ll only hear from opponents,” Maiorino says. “I think planning boards are almost shocked when they see supporters show up at meetings.”
The consensus is that providers and senior living developers will have to get better at turning out supporters in the coming years, because limited real estate and a booming senior population mean that these projects will become more common in areas that do not welcome them.
“NIMBYism will increase as the population increases and development increases,” Maiorino says. “God’s not making any more land.”
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Written by Tim Mullaney