Three Keys to Public Meeting Success

by Tanya Zwahlen

Last night was the first public meeting for the City of Rochester Bull’s Head Brownfield Opportunity Area Step 2 Revitalization Plan project. The purpose of the meeting was to share existing conditions data and obtain input from the community on what the data cannot tell us about demographic and economic conditions, how parks and recreation are used, transportation and infrastructure needs, and land use opportunities.

1. Get the Word Out… Far and Wide

In spite of the fact that it was a perfect summer night, more than 90 people attended the meeting, including Mayor Lovely Warren. We had representation from City Council, the Rochester Police Department, the Urban League, Rochester Regional Health, Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood Association, 19th Ward Neighborhood Association, Neighborhoods United, Plymouth Exchange Neighborhood Association (PLEX), as well as dozens of neighbors, business owners, and property owners. The key to getting people in the room is casting a wide net. Our team sent 800 postcards, emailed all the business and neighborhood leaders, and conducted door-to-door outreach as well.

2. Deliberate about Meeting Design

The second key to meeting success is meeting design. Amidst all the work to prepare for a public meeting, this is an overlooked but critical aspect of successful public engagement. It’s important to give participants enough information (but not too much), and to ask the right questions that will inform the next steps of the project. It’s also important to designate time for people to ask questions and to talk amongst themselves.

Our consultant team and the City of Rochester Project Manager, Rick Rynski, spent a lot of time considering the best way to solicit input. First we thought about what information we needed to know. We decided that we wanted meeting participants to provide more depth to the existing conditions data. We wanted them to tell us what only people living and working in the project area would know. We chose a combination of cardstorming, World Cafe, and mapping exercises. We deliberated over the wording of each question we asked.  We decided that Rick would respond to questions by members of the public, and that each station would have a designated facilitator.

Ultimately, our discussions about meeting design and preparation were a good investment of time. Each of the activities worked well. Meeting participants felt informed and that their input was valued. To me, that’s what matters most.

3. Assess the Need to Pivot

​It didn’t happen last night, but sometimes meeting participants need information you didn’t anticipate they would want. They might want to comment on something you didn’t think to ask them. If this happens, you need to pivot. Sometimes consultants and project sponsors can be rigid about sticking to the meeting agenda, but I always encourage them to be flexible. If the most important thing is that meeting participants feel informed, that their questions are answered, and that their input is valued, you may need to change the game plan to achieve that goal. So be ready to do so.


It is *thrilling* to be a part of a project when this many people are engaged. Now to summarize and analyze the input! Stay tuned for more on Bull’s Head as we progress.

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