Ports Strengthen Partnerships Via Community Outreach

Ports Strengthen Partnerships Via Community Outreach

By Kathy A. Smith

Ports are involving local communities in several ways that help educate and engage stakeholders. This involvement not only acts as a way to bridge ports to their communities, it can encourage acceptance, involvement and even partnerships.

“How we achieve outreach is with open communication,” says Manuel Almira, executive director for the Port of Palm Beach. “And that is our responsibility, to have an open door policy with any member of the public.” Almira believes clear communication is also an important factor in engaging the public, community organizations and other stakeholders. “It is our responsibility to control the message. We try to control it as much as we can in order to avoid misinformation and resulting mistrust from the local community.”

Deciding what platform to use for a particular audience is key as well. Jade D. Davis, vice president of external affairs for the Port of Cleveland, says community organizations, for instance, usually have one or two central issues, such as water quality or water access, that they want addressed as opposed to the general public who may have several concerns on different topics. So in one scenario, if millennials in the business community are the intended audience, a three- to five-page PowerPoint presentation and email distribution might be the best ways to get messages out to this demographic.

Evangeline Englezos, director of Community and Aboriginal Affairs for Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA) previously known as Port Metro Vancouver, says the port is experiencing unprecedented investment and growth and that it undertakes extensive engagement consultation activities when planning supporting tenant projects. “We’re always looking to recognize what kinds of impacts we’re bringing about in our community,” she says. VFPA follows the International Association of Public Participation guidelines, which includes consultation with communities to ensure their concerns are addressed. The port also has three community liaison committees that are made up of diverse stakeholders in the community since the port borders on 16 different municipalities.

Taking part in volunteering is central to how the Port of Corpus Christi engages its local community. “We don’t just provide monetary assistance for events,” says Rosie Collin, the director of community relations. “We’re active participants in over 100 non-profit organizations and we participate in a variety of volunteer activities.” The port is also active with area Chambers of Commerce and holds itself to high community stewardship standards. And it supports programs that beautify the community and others that encourage wellness. In the past five years, the port has given several million dollars to the community to support events.

According to Collin, the Port of Corpus Christi supports three adoptive schools – meaning many volunteer activities are initiated at different times throughout the year. For instance, at Christmas, port and community volunteers will attend one of the schools, provide small gifts and sing carols. The port attends, organizes and sponsors many community organizations, such as an initiative last summer where the port supported the local food bank and helped to collect hundreds of pounds of food to assist families in the area. “We also support and invest in maritime stewardship programs with the Seaman’s Center as well as community steward programs that enable others to give them a helping hand during times of need like Good Samaritan and other homeless shelters,” she says.

Public access events, such as Christmas at Canada Place, helps VFPA engage with the community during a two-week period of activities that are held along the promenade which include arts and crafts for children. In the summer, National Aboriginal Day, movie nights and Canada Day events are well attended, with a variety of activities for all ages. The port sponsors many community initiatives and educational programs such as a community school program – students learn about the Port of Vancouver through interactive displays at its recently-renovated Discovery Center – that offers fourth- and sixth-graders port-oriented presentations and activities. Additionally, VFPA hires students as well.

“Every summer we hire up to eight university students and they participate in roughly 40 local events and engage with the public to learn about the port and get information,” Englezos explains. “We also work with high schools and the Grade 10 program. If students work in a workplace and volunteer for 100 hours, they get credits as part of their leadership program. When they complete their 100 hours, we give them an honorarium. So they augment the presence we have in the community.”

The Port of Palm Beach hires interns during the summer months so they can gain valuable work experience. “First we determine what their chosen field of interest is and we try to accommodate them as much as we can, but the goal is to have interns exposed to different jobs at the port,” says Almira. The port works with schools, Chambers of Commerce and other organizations as well. “The door is always open for discussions and tours,” he says. “We really enjoy and look forward to having elected officials and legislators visit. We also reach stakeholders through traditional media and the many social media channels that have blossomed over the past 10 years.”

Tours at the Port of Cleveland are ongoing – for the public, community organizations, as well as legislative groups. “We’ve had the Speaker of the Ohio House and many other state legislators tour the Cuyahoga River looking at different infrastructure projects,” says Davis. “This year, we’re focused on getting more people out on boats to let them see our operations, our container yards and how we operate so they can feel more comfortable with us being here and speaking up for the importance of the port.”

Davis says the port has an aggressive plan to improve its social media reach and notes an increase in followers of 25 percent over the past few months. “We have conducted social media campaigns to engage our local community on port issues,” he explains. “We’re also actively engaged in creating research and development opportunities where we can utilize our local media to get the message out. We want to be very open about what we’re doing here and how our local community benefits.”

Measuring outreach success is done at VFPA via annual surveys to track awareness of the port, concerns people have about impacts and their engagement preferences. Additionally a post-event tracking process is used for recording attendance and feedback. The port also tracks public complaints; unusual noise, for example. In fact, the port has 11 noise monitoring stations. “We can look at the data and can pinpoint the times,” says Englezos. “We also have a feedback line, so we take calls or questions from the community and we follow up on them.”

Further, VFPA’s Community Awareness Campaign includes traditional advertising on TV, radio and social media. It increased public understanding of the port authority’s mandate and overall favorable impressions for the port’s operations and growth.

Community consultation around a variety of issues such as environmental and infrastructure is, of course, good policy so that all stakeholders feel they have a say. VFPA looks for ways to involve the community both by informational meetings as well as open consultations with various port and terminal operator projects. Englezos says the port is very clear about what is considered a consultation topic and what involves primarily information dissemination in order to ensure there are no unrealistic expectations. For example, when the port built a roadway on the north shore, the public was consulted on visual impacts such as the type of proposed fencing, using various visual mock-ups of options.

In regard to public access to information, one initiative involved VFPA opening an office in Delta in late 2014, where the port’s largest container terminal is located. Another container terminal is being proposed in the same area. The port wanted to ensure local residents with concerns could be accommodated appropriately. “The office is open Wednesdays through Saturdays so community members don’t have to drive all the way downtown to meet someone from the port,” says Englezos. “They can get information and have their questions answered in their community.”

“We work with the public to keep them engaged with environmental issues,” says the Port of Cleveland’s Davis, who notes the port operates several boats that consistently clean the harbor as well as the Cuyahoga River. “One project we’re currently working on is the disposal and processing of dredged sediment,” he says. “We’re working closely with environmental groups to make sure they understand exactly what our plans are, exactly what beneficial uses we can make of the sediment and how we plan to help protect Lake Erie and our drinking water.”

At the Port of Palm Beach, educating the public about short sea shipping is central to understanding the port’s role in moving goods, according to Almira. The port is connected to several communities, including the township of Palm Beach, the City of West Palm Beach and many others along the agricultural sector of Palm Beach County. Sugar cane is grown and cultivated on nearby agricultural lands and is trucked to the port for barging to national destinations.

There have been some public concerns over the deepening and widening of the harbor. Many residents have been under the incorrect assumption that these infrastructure projects would mean the port would start seeing Post-Panamax-size vessels calling. The port, along with the Army Corp of Engineers, has put out a plan to dredge down to 39 feet from its current 33 feet. “Residents of the Township of Palm Beach have been misinformed,” says Almira. “Post-Panamax vessels would never call here. With every presentation, whether one-on-one or in groups, we stress that we know our limits and we will not go beyond them.”

It’s clear that ports must walk a fine line to balance their economic and expansion needs and manage their environmental impact while working hard to be seen as a partner in the community. “We understand that ports are a huge economic engine locally, but it’s also very important that we contribute to the community and ensure we’re thriving together,” says VFPA’s Englezos. The Port of Cleveland’s Davis adds, “What we’ve found is if we keep an open dialogue, the port is no longer seen as an intruding business unit, rather a partner that provides economic development, environmental stewardship and green space that residents can utilize year-round.”

Collin at the Port of Corpus Christi says it is an honor and a responsibility that, as a port, it gives back. “That’s why we allow our employees to serve on boards that will help augment our community, especially in addressing community needs,” she says.

Almira from the Port of Palm Beach perhaps says it best. The port’s logo, which states “Import. Export. Your Port.” embodies the message that the port is a business that “belongs” to the people in the community. “We may manage it. We may be the administrators,” he sums up, “but at the end of the day, it’s their port.” In the age of full transparency, this approach seems to have taken a strong hold and looks to be the future of positive community relations for ports.