Changing The Communication Landscape Through Construction

It has been said that good news travels fast. In a town like Lansing, MI, news travels slightly faster. The tight-knit capital community is, without a doubt, one of Michigan’s biggest small towns. So when construction hits, the word gets around.

Since 1992, Lansing has been engaged in a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control Program to eliminate millions of gallons of wastewater that enters the Grand River and surrounding bodies of water. Scheduled for completion in 2020, the CSO Control Program is mandated on both state (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) and federal (Environmental Protection Agency) levels as a means to protect and preserve Michigan’s waterways.

Once completed, the CSO Control Program will have separated nearly 7,000 acres of combined sewer pipeline and will eliminate 1.65 billion gallons of raw sewage overflow annually. That’s the equivalent of 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools of wastewater in our rivers, streams and lakes. To date, the CSO Control Program has eliminated an average of 952.1 million gallons of combined sewage from entering the waterways each year, putting it just past the halfway mark for the project goal.

The challenge, of course, is helping the neighborhoods and business communities impacted by CSO construction, understand that the equipment and orange barrels outside their homes and storefronts have little to do with road improvements and everything to do with what’s going on below the surface.

The 2009 construction season marked a significant year for this underground project in mid-Michigan, reaching multiple milestones in construction and communication alike. With the combined efforts of engineers, contractors the Lansing Public Service Department and a smiling, seven-foot fish mascot, the city of Lansing is putting a new face on construction. The results have been nothing short of a success.

Dollars well spent
Of the $12 million Lansing dedicated to road repair projects in 2009, $5.5 million went to the CSO Control Program. These funds contributed to 7.7 miles of new sanitary sewer lines, 5.9 miles of new water main lines and the abandonment of three of the largest CSO regulators in Lansing. With these additions, the CSO Control Program has created 62 miles of new sanitary sewer lines and 39 miles of new water main lines.

In conjunction with the separation of the combined sewers, the CSO Control Program collaborates with businesses including the Lansing Board of Water and Light, Consumers Energy, AT&T and Comcast to integrate underground construction planning and execution. Updating the infrastructure for new technologies, this cooperation eliminates the need for future underground construction projects and saves resources, energy and funds.

The integrated planning of the CSO Control Program and the city of Lansing has also aided in the enhancement of city streetscape and infrastructure programs. Major areas of enhancement in the last several years included the creation of bio-retention rain gardens along city sidewalks, beautifying the landscape along the Michigan Avenue corridor, and a main thoroughfare for traffic leading up to the capitol building.

The CSO Control Program also aids in the improvement of public health and aquatic habitats for businesses, residents and wildlife along Lansing’s waterways. With a new City Market and the Accident Fund Insurance headquarters opening on Lansing’s Grand River in 2010, these benefits are increasing property values and have business owners taking a second look at Lansing’s riverfront property potential.

What made the 2009 construction season a success for Lansing was not only in construction and environmental advancements, but also the communication. A major component that was missing from the CSO Control Program (and many underground construction programs across the nation) was a solid, creative campaign to make businesses and the public care about the issues that the CSO program is working to correct.

“So many business owners and community members who see the tractors and backhoes tearing up their street think we’re just repairing Michigan roads,” said Nicole McPherson, project engineer for Tetra Tech. “It takes a strong message and concerted effort to help them understand what we’re doing is so much more than what’s on the surface.”

In 2008, the CSO Control Program contractors teamed up with the city of Lansing and Motion Marketing & Media (M3), a local marketing firm, to create an integrated communication plan to raise awareness of the positive results of the project. Through the work of M3’s creative talents and the visionary planning of the CSO team, the heart of their plan began with a CSO mascot: Swish the Fish.

Swish the Fish started as nothing more than a computer-generated illustration, and was aptly named through a community contest. Swish became the face of Lansing’s CSO integrated marketing and public relations campaign, designed to educate and inform the community about the need for CSO construction. In 2009, the CSO team raised funds to bring Swish to life, and a seven-foot smiling fish mascot was born.

“Swish has been tremendous in helping the mid-Michigan community understand the importance of CSO construction,” said Tiffany Dowling, president and chief conversation starter at M3. “What once was an underground construction project that concerned business owners and neighborhood residents has turned into a teachable initiative that brings people downtown.”

In the summer of 2009, the CSO team launched a “Swish Bucks” promotion offering residents in Lansing as well as the surrounding community a $5 coupon to spend at a participating downtown business of their choice. More than 20 percent of the coupons handed out were redeemed at downtown businesses affected by CSO construction. This promotion accounted for more than $1,400 of downtown commercial business in areas that would normally see decreased pedestrian traffic due to construction.

In addition to this promotion, the CSO Control Program team implemented several other communication initiatives in 2009 to increase public awareness and education for this underground construction project:

  • Guerilla marketing tactics (clever construction-related phrases chalked on the sidewalk and orange barrels wrapped in banners, followed by Lansing “Hard Hat Day”, on which play hard hats were handed out downtown) were used to announce the kickoff of construction in the spring;
  • Third- and fourth-grade student art banners decorated construction fencing in downtown areas; the drawings and written passages depicted what a “cleaner, greener Lansing” means to local elementary students;
  • Construction University (Construction U) coordinated an educational program site along the Grand River as part of Lansing’s annual “Be A Tourist In Your Own Town” one-day event where families learned about the environmental benefits of CSO, played on construction machinery and interacted with Swish; and
  • To wrap up the 2009 construction season, BBQ Block Parties were held for neighborhoods in completed CSO construction project areas; dinner was served to residents at no charge along with activities for the children. Surveys were conducted at Block Parties to assess the effectiveness of CSO communication to neighborhoods and businesses.

Impressive results
What the entire CSO team found was remarkable. Residents said the environmental results were among the top aspects of CSO they were most satisfied with (23 percent), second only to access to local roads (28 percent). More than four-fifths of residents, 81 percent, said they felt well informed about the project. Of those who did not feel well informed, about a quarter indicated that they did not attend public meetings or had moved into the area in the middle of the project.

“The real success of the 2009 construction season was the ability to communicate the purpose of our project,” said McPherson. “Working hand-in-hand with the businesses and neighborhoods we’re impacting in the short-term really helped them understand the benefits of CSOs … and when the surrounding community is understanding, it makes our job easier.”

The multi-year communications plan built on the efforts of the 2008 construction season. The strategic planning of these efforts earned the CSO Control Program top honors with the Central Michigan Public Relations Society of America’s PACE Award of Excellence in Public Service, awarded in early 2009.

As the 2010 construction season approaches, the city of Lansing knows the bar has been raised for underground construction success and communication. The CSO Control Program is not only changing the way the city operates below the surface; it’s changing the future of waterways and the heart of Michigan as a whole. Consider the long-term, positive impacts of the underground construction in your area and get talking. Good news travels fast!

About the author:

Chad Gamble, P.E., is the director of public service for the city of Lansing, MI. He has worked for 12 years with the CSO Control Program, and currently works as a liaison between engineers, contractors and external agencies for the project. Prior to his promotion to director of public service, Gamble worked as the assistant city engineer in charge of the city of Lansing’s $176 million CSO Control Program and $300 million Sanitary Sewer Overflow Program.

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