[Case Study] Public Outreach

Challenge

Like many municipalities, the City of Portland, Maine presided over an aging wastewater system. In some areas, the wastewater system combined sanitary sewage and stormwater in a single pipe, called a combined sewer. When it rained, the combined sewer system was overwhelmed by runoff and raw sewage was dumped into Casco Bay and nearby streams. The City was required by law to stop raw sewage and polluted runoff from dumping into Casco Bay. The City maintains over 107 miles of sewage pipe, 120 miles of combined sewer pipe and over 68 miles of stormwater pipe. Nearly 15,000 additional structures (manholes and catch basins) help move sewage and runoff through the system.

Faced with a federal mandate to separate and treat stormwater and sewage and to eliminate untreated discharge, the city commissioned a task force to study the issue and to make recommendations for developing a fair and equitable means for paying for construction and ongoing maintenance of the required infrastructure upgrades.

That task force’s recommendations included creating a stormwater utility fee to be assessed based on the stormwater runoff generated from the city’s businesses and residences, as well as provisions for ways the fee can be mitigated by the installation of rain barrels, rain gardens and other methods for reducing runoff. Upon receiving the recommendations of the task force, the city saw the need to communicate the reasons for upcoming stormwater and sewage system upgrades, to present the task force recommendations for funding those changes and to solicit feedback from businesses and residents.

Solution

The City of Portland and their lead engineering firm of the stormwater project, Woodard and Curran, Inc., hired 19 Oaks to develop and execute and outreach strategy for creating awareness for the stormwater project, presenting the challenges and proposed solutions and soliciting feedback. The following initiatives became the cornerstones of the outreach program:

  • 19 Oaks created online content and a brochure about the project to help the general public learn more about the initiative.
  • 19 Oaks organized and hosted a series of professionally facilitated group roundtables. Attendees represented a robust representative sample of businesses and organizations that would be affected by infrastructure upgrades including hospitals, not for profit organizations, manufacturers, restaurants, apartment complexes and sole proprietorships, such as single location stores. The purpose of these meetings was to help area businesses fully understand the challenges and proposed solutions and to gather feedback for the benefit of city staff and elected officials.
  • 19 Oaks organized, promoted and held a press tour to ensure members of the media fully understood the stormwater challenges and proposed solutions and could accurately convey the story to the public.
  • 19 Oaks developed a tour of the city that visited several sites (including areas where storm water runoff occur, current sewage treatment facilities, sites where new infrastructure would be built and businesses that have already taken measures to reduce stormwater runoff), created a special press tour packet highlighting each of the tour stops, sent invitations to the press, followed up to ensure their attendance and attended the press tour to help document feedback for the city.
  • 19 Oaks created a stormwater fact sheet to be shared with city staff, so they can consistently present the need for infrastructure upgrades and the proposed changes to citizens who contact them with questions or concerns.

Results

The outreach and feedback program developed and executed by 19 Oaks was enormously successful. It allowed the community to participate and weigh in on the plan well in advance of it being considered by the city council and put into effect. The value of this participatory outreach program has been acknowledged by the city and they are going to utilize the same approach for implementing other citywide initiatives.