The P3 Spectrum: Which P3 Model Should I Use?

10/16/2018 3:03 PM | Bill Hess for SCDF

The Public-Private Partnership (P3) model is a complex method of financing construction projects that has many considerations when identifying the variations. This intricate arrangement has been gaining traction in the US as a preferred method for financing, building and operating public sector developments with private sector resources and partners. The model has been used in Canada, Europe, Australia and elsewhere for some time.

A P3 relationship is comprised of several relationships between public clients and the private development community to design, build, finance and maintain projects. There are many different variations of P3 relationships, so navigating this spectrum can often be challenging for organizations who are new to P3. In fact, the complexities of the P3 spectrum can often leave experienced individuals in a state of confusion.

On Oct. 9, SCDF hosted a P3 Spectrum panel at City Club LA in which a number of industry professionals with substantial P3 knowledge and experience shared insights on how these types of relationships can be managed. Moderated by Paula Stamp, Director of Business Development at PCL Construction Services, Inc., the panel discussion addressed planning and approaches related to the P3 spectrum. In addition to Stamp, speakers included: Sam Jung, VP of Balfour Beatty Campus Solutions; Colin Donahue, CFO and VP of Administration and Finance at California State University Northridge, and Michael Owh, Chief Procurement Officer at City of Los Angeles.

Complexities Involved in the P3 Method

All panelists agreed that P3 projects are significantly more complicated than conventionally built projects. Much of this seems to be sourced from the differing worlds of public and private entities and finding a common ground on what success and achievement means to all parties involved.

“Developments that involve collaboration between public and private entities take a lot of planning upfront to examine what the final outcome should be,” said Michael Owh. “There is always a concern about the internal expertise, and there are numerous complexities throughout the life of a project.”

P3 funded projects also tend to have varying cycles of partner involvement, typically around 30 years but sometimes longer. This can present a number of challenges especially for certain projects in which the industry is rapidly changing. Higher education was cited as a sector in which development can be especially tricky due to a rapidly evolving landscape. Colin Donahue of CSUN noted that any P3 funded project he oversees is developed on a 50 to 60-year life cycle, and require arduous planning processes which are a result of heavy investment capital.

“We don’t know what higher ed is going to look like in five years, let alone thirty years, so planning has to be very well thought-out,” said Donahue.

Panelists also noted that the extensive life cycles of these project arrangements can create a knowledge gap. The span of a P3 funded development often sees high employee turnover which can create voids in much needed institutional knowledge.

A True Partnership

Another consensus between all panelists was the absolute need for all P3 funded developments to be authentic partnerships. Trust was mentioned as one of most important factors in establishing lasting relationships.

“It’s very important to trust your partners,” said Sam Jung of Balfour Beatty Campus Solutions. “Having an open discussion about what both parties will gain from the partnership, as well as any incentives that will pave the way for long-term success are also crucial.”

While the need to form an authentic and lasting partnership is paramount, it is also important to understand that not all partnerships are meant to be. An effective P3 partnership is made up of parties who not only have the same goals but also complement one another, just like any other ideal business partnership. The complexities seem to arise when the issue of money is brought into focus.

“A lot of times we won’t find it sensible to consider a project unless it’s at least $100 million,” said Donahue. “However, we occasionally consider projects that are well under this number if there is an opportunity to create a meaningful partnership with an organization that has a project we believe will provide a value to the community.”

Panelists shared examples of what makes for a great partnership in a P3. Creativity, flexibility and total transparency were all noted as vital characteristics that potential partners should seek out from one another.

“Another important thing to remember is that not every partner is a match for a client,” said Jung. “As procurements become more complicated, what clients look for in a partner does too.”

Since P3 developments exist on a spectrum both parties need to have the same understanding of what it means to be in a public-private partnership.  

Final Takeaways

Since the use of P3 methods can be perplexing to many, panelists seemed to agree that there was no “magic formula” for success in using the P3 method. The consensus was that trust, partnership, and flexibility are vital tools to have in order to have success throughout the life of a P3 funded project. Due to the complexities involved in this funding method many small businesses are often reluctant to engage in P3 developments. However, the fear of loss and risks involved were noted as being at the forefront of any developer’s conscience, whether large or small. 

All panelists agreed that becoming real estate savvy and having a precise vision before initiating execution are also key components to success. When businesses, large or small, implement these practices, they find greater success in using the P3 method.

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