10,000 pennies for Yard thoughts

The Brooklyn Paper
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Someone wants to know what Brooklyn thinks of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project — and that secret someone is willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out.

Thousands of Brooklyn residents have been paid $100 each to attend focus group sessions conducted by a Cobble Hill marketing research firm.

The sessions centered on people’s perceptions of the $3.5-billion commercial, residential and arena mega-project — and how well Forest City Ratner is getting its message out about the project’s purported benefits.

“They kept telling us how much affordable housing there would be,” said one small business owner who participated. “They told us about the park. They told us about how many jobs there would be.”

Another business owner in the same session called it “a bunch of talking points.”

“We were rolling our eyes,” said Erica Kalick, the owner of Erica’s Rugelach and Baking Company.

Focus groups, which have become a staple of modern marketing, allow big companies to reach out to potential consumers and hear how well — or how poorly — their sales or public relations strategy is working.

In political campaigns, they are often used as a way of swaying public opinion under the guise of a neutral survey.

That seemed to be the approach here, participants said.

“It was fun, but scary,” explained one attendee. “I came in against the project, but by the time I left, my attitude was, ‘Oh yeah, let’s build. It’s going to be wonderful’.”

Experts said focus groups allow politicians and companies to hide their intentions while testing various messages.

“It gives a grass-roots feel,” said Tony Herbert, a vice president of Vital Marketing in Manhattan. “It helps identify the brand and the demand for the product.”

None of the participants were ever told who was behind the polling — but many had an idea.

“I am sure it was Ratner,” said Kalick.

“Holding a professional focus group is not cheap and who else would do that?”

Dozens of tightly focussed sessions were held. Blacks were recruited for one, Park Slope residents for another, and business owners in a third.

The developer was not mentioned by name, but project architect Frank Gehry and landscape architect Lauri Olin were mentioned — repeatedly modified by the adjective “world famous,” according to a recording obtained by The Brooklyn Papers.

Forest City Ratner has used focus groups in the past to test response to its plans, a spokesman said.

He declined to say whether the company was involved in the latest focus groups, which were held in the Court Street offices of Recruiting Resources Unlimited..

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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