AKRON, OHIO — Community advisory panels can help the vinyl industry build bridges with its neighbors, but officials must be careful the relationship does not become a simple public relations effort, according to speakers at the World Vinyl Forum, held Sept. 7-9 in Akron.
``A CAP isn't self-promoting like PR and it shouldn't be a PR tool,'' said Diane Sheridan, an independent facilitator who works with eight CAPs in the Houston area.
Sheridan said this distinction is one that must be made to fully involve the community in working with the vinyl industry.
``When you're handing someone a $5,000 check to buy computers for the elementary school, he's not going to say, `By the way, Bob, I'm worried about that black smoke that's coming out of your plant,''' Sheridan said. ``You have to deal with two sets of facts.''
Sheridan suggested demographic and geographic diversity when forming a CAP that will work with the manufacturer to represent the community's interests and give residents a say on the company's actions.
Formosa Plastics Corp. USA learned the value of community relations in 1992, when, according to the firm, opponents led primarily by one resident delayed a $1.5 billion expansion of the company's Point Comfort, Texas, PVC facility for several months.
Battling opponents from within the community ``has a large potential for wasting resources,'' according to Robert Kelley, Formosa's vice president of environment, safety and communications.
The 1992 challenge led to the creation of a technical review commission made up of company officials and community representatives. The panel audited Formosa's environmental and safety record for four years.
Since then, the firm has taken several steps to improve its community relations, including having several senior management officials move into the area.
Kelley credited these steps for smoothing out the announcement of another expansion earlier this year. Residents did not even request a public hearing on Formosa's plans for the new round of expansion, according to Kelley.
``If these programs had been up and running before, we would have built some trust in the community as to our performance,'' Kelley said.
``Over the years, we've learned it's easiest to bring all parties into a room and address their concerns.''