Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (NYSE:AMD) may be the perennial also-ran to Intel Corp. in the microprocessor business, but when it comes to waging a charm offensive to clear the path for a controversial real estate development, the company may be second to no one.
Late this month, the company is expected to win approval to clearing land for an 870,000 sq. ft. office complex in the wooded hills of Southwest Austin, an area where prior developments — including one by rival Motorola — were scrapped in the face of protests by residents.
How AMD pulled it off — barring any further setbacks in coming weeks, that is — is a lesson in how to deal with the growing power of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups. AMD could not have chosen a site more certain to elicit a fight. Its choice for a new building to consolidate staff from 12 Austin-area offices is in the watershed that feeds Barton Springs, a natural resource that is home to the endangered Barton Springs salamander. It is an area where environmental and neighborhood groups have been fighting development for two decades.
“Because of the location, we knew that folks like the SOS (Save Our Springs) Alliance would not be too happy with our location choice and we anticipated there would need to be additional emphasis on communicating and working with the community to keep people abreast of the project,” says Travis Bullard, Austin spokesman for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD. “We anticipated there would need to be additional emphasis on communicating and working with the community to keep people abreast of the project.”
In the late 1990s, the Save Our Springs Alliance environmental protection group successfully pressured Motorola and software maker Computer Sciences Corp. to scrap large development plans in the area, despite grandfathered development rights.
The SOS Alliance has launched an anti-AMD campaign, urging voters to approve two city charter amendments on the May 13 ballot that would discourage major employers from developing in the Barton Springs watershed and would prohibit the city from giving development incentives to companies that move there. The Alliance created a Web site (www.moveamd.com) to rally resistance efforts, and spreads its message through a newsletter distribution to 3,000 members and 10,000 non-members.
But AMD had anticipated the SOS initiatives and pre-empted the attack with a massive direct-mail and print advertising campaign. Immediately after announcing its campus plans in 2005, the company mailed letters introducing the project to 25,000 nearby residents and began hosting meetings with neighborhood groups.
More recently, AMD launched a Web site, www.amdlonestar.com, to publicize the steps the company is taking to minimize harm to the environment. The company also mailed an eight-page, color brochure about the project to 95,000 Austin households, along with a letter from CEO Hector Ruiz, who has a home near Austin.
The strategy appears to be working, considering that AMD is expected to receive a site development permit this month from the City of Austin.
The Save Our Springs Alliance received a setback on Apr. 11, when a district court Judge John Dietz denied its request for a temporary injunction to bar issuance of construction permits. SOS had requested the injunction as part of a suit against the city. Dietz ordered the city, AMD, the Save Our Springs Alliance and the property owner, Stratus Properties Inc. (NASDAQ: STRS), into a 30-day arbitration.
The arbitration period won’t delay the city’s permitting process, according to Assistant City Attorney Laurie Eiserloh. “We have a few final comments that are waiting to clear, but we expect the site development permit to be released soon,” she says.
Meantime, Save Our Springs Alliance has dropped its lawsuit and is hoping to win concessions in mediation. “We’ll participate in the mediation process and see if there is some room for resolution on the specific AMD tract,” says Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. “At the same time, we’ll continue our efforts in the community to work toward convincing AMD to choose another site, and to earn community support for the proposed, citizen-initiated charter amendments.”
AMD’s Bullard suggests developers or employers introducing similar projects begin working with neighboring residents and property owners early in the planning process. “It’s not as simple as presenting your plan and asking people to support it,” he says. “You’ve got to talk to them early and often about what your goals and plans are, get their input, and be open to incorporating that into your plan, making it a true partnership.”
AMD expects to begin clearing the site in May and start construction in late summer. The campus’ five office buildings and three parking structures could be ready for move-in by mid to late 2007.