Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fake NIMBYs

I first heard about the Saint Consulting Group a few years back when I saw an executive speak at a legal conference about NIMBY and the socio-political dynamics of development opposition. It was a fascinating lecture, and it introduced me to some *very* important acronyms like CAVEmen and NIMTOO.

The short explanation of what Saint does is that it's a development consultant. If you're a developer and you want to get a project built, Saint can help you. Or if you want to stop a project from happening, they can help you with that too.

And that's where it gets interesting, because Saint has learned to apply the Harvard approach (see here for more) to development opposition battles. They call their tactics "black arts." The most important thing to remember? If you want to get a project stopped, convince everybody that you're on the side of soccer moms and Joe Sixpacks. Do not let them know that you're being bankrolled by the developer's corporate competition.

The WSJ published a fascinating profile of the company this week, and it explains just how Saint has been clandestinely fighting Wal-Mart projects on behalf of supermarkets everywhere. Basically, after the grocery store chain hires them, the Saint folks move into town, adopt fake names, start fake NIMBY groups, and then try to delay, and ultimately kill, the Wal-Mart. They'll use phone banks to make it look like lots of people are calling the mayor and city council to complain. They'll make up stories about how evil Wal-Mart is to convince neighborhood residents to join the opposition. And then of course come the lawyers and the high stakes development litigation. The funding comes from the supermarkets, but Saint employees don't tell anybody that. They just say they have connections.

There's something distasteful about all of this, with large grocery chains like Safeway and Giant paying Saint to create astroturf grassroots campaigns to trash Wal-Mart. But what Saint does is legal, and aside from the secrecy, it's not so different from what real CBA coalitions do. In fact, a while after my first encounter with Saint, I met some Saint employees at a conference about CBAs. They were keeping up on real grassroots techniques, presumably to better enable them to help their clients. So I'm guessing that if there aren't already, it will only be a matter of time until there are some Saint-backed CBAs out there...

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