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Resources Matter: Protecting the Environment While Growing the Local Economy Transcript

February 10, 2010

Moderator: Welcome to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Economic Development podcast series. I'm Todd Greene with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Today we're talking with Chris Clark, commissioner of Georgia's Department of Natural Resources. Chris Clark was sworn in as commissioner in April 2009. His agency oversees an array of functions including state parks and historic sites, Georgia's wildlife and natural management areas, conservation and environmental education programs, coastal management, and environmental protection. Prior to his appointment, Commissioner Clark served as executive director of the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority. Commissioner Clark has also served as the deputy commissioner for global commerce at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the marketing arm of the state of Georgia.

The connection between economic development and the state's natural resources is both real and important. A state's natural resources are the building blocks for its economy, and the strategic and thoughtful management of these building blocks leads to productive industries and thriving communities. Commissioner Clark, thank you for joining me today.

Chris Clark: Thank you for having me, Todd.

Moderator: You have held key leadership positions as both an economic developer and in environmental financing, and now you are the commissioner of natural resources for the state of Georgia. Help us to understand some of the connections between economic development, community development, and the sustainable use of the state's natural resources.

Clark: I think most people realize that the Department of Natural Resources in any state is in the conservation business. What most don't realize, though, is that these natural resource agencies do play an important role in economic development. I mean, I think it's as easy to see as simply looking at the mission statement of our agency here in Georgia. The first part of our mission statement, I think, is what you would expect. It's to sustain, enhance, protect, and conserve Georgia's natural, historic, and cultural resources for present and future generations. But the second part of our mission statement says, while recognizing the importance of promoting the development of commerce and industry and that utilize sound environmental practices.

So at the outset, you really think about natural resources from a quality of life point of view, and we know how important that is, particularly in the new creative-class economy. But at the same time, it's becoming more and more important that we help businesses grow in an environmentally sensitive way. I kind of come to this from a little bit different philosophy, I think, than most people do. Most think that you can improve the environment at the cost of business or vice versa, that they're exclusive. But I think with my background, Todd, I see that you can do both: that we can improve the environment and at the same time do what's right for the economy and continue to add jobs. Georgia's got a lot of opportunities and a lot of examples of that.

Moderator: Well, how can the state's unique natural and cultural resources be leveraged in support of economic development and community development?

Clark: Well, Todd, there's a variety of ways. What comes to mind initially is, we've obviously spent a lot of time in Georgia focused on alternative energy and alternative fuel. We were proud to announce a solar panel company that grew out of Georgia Tech that's investing here in Georgia: Suniva. We've got announcements by Oglethorpe Power in Georgia to build two new biomass plants. They're going to employ folks, put money into the local tax coffers, and at the same time give us green energy in the state.

Another area that we exceed at without really trying is in ecotourism and heritage tourism. In Georgia, with really little to no marketing of those assets, we're seeing over $7 billion of direct spending annually. And we have over 10 million people that visit our state parks and every time they spend a dollar it generates $7 back through the community, and again, mainly impacting small businesses.

Another area I think that is unique, and that is particular for community development. Todd, when you think back about going to different places in the world to call on companies and to call on governments for economic development, I always found it remarkable that the first thing that we did is we went to a cultural, a heritage, a historical, or a natural resource that they were proud of, whether it was the Chinese pyramids, whether it was a ballet in Russia. That was how we started the conversation, and that's something we really don't do here in America. We always go straight to the industrial park or straight to the boardroom. But I think as communities out there realize that they are in a global market, leveraging these natural resources as a way to imprint and to tell their story for foreign direct investment is going to be more and more important.

Moderator: Commissioner, what are some of the more innovative ways Georgia has combined economic development and the sustainable use of the state's natural resources?

Clark: Georgia's really poised, I think, to be a leader in the terms of conservation and sustainable technology. And a great example of that is, Governor Purdue created the Energy Innovation Center here in Georgia for research and commercialization of alternative energy. Locally produced biofuels, we believe, can contribute up to 15 percent of our state's transportation fuels in the next 10 to 15 years. I think there are also great examples with water. We've got companies like Toto, here in the state, that are leading their industry in water conservation. We're seeing that companies from Australia and Israel—where they've had a lot experience with water conservation—are now looking at coming to Georgia and working with our innovation center.

Another area, too, that I think we have been particularly innovative is, the Department of Natural Resources back in April announced that we were transitioning our pollution control team to a sustainability team to work with Georgia businesses to become more sustainable through our partnership for a sustainable Georgia. And we're working with manufacturers, builders, hotels, schools, governments, agriculture, every sector out there, to look at ways for businesses to improve their footprint. A great example of that is AirTran, and they're looking at moving toward all recyclables on their flights. They're looking at their people movers on the ground and their airplane movers on the ground going to electric instead of gasoline powered. But we're also trying to be innovative on the business side from a state government point of view to help businesses move in that direction.

Moderator: Commissioner, you mentioned water in your last response. In light of the litigation involving water rights and usage between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, please explain why access to water is an economic development issue and how the states might work together to arrive at a solution that serves the best interest in the entire region.

Clark: Todd, I think, it might be one of the defining issues for the next generation of leaders to work on. We obviously can't continue to grow, we can't even maintain the population that we have, if we don't have adequate water. And when we look at an economy in transition—which I believe we have here in the Southeast, going from manufacturing to more high-tech, particularly in the area of biosciences—these companies want not only water quantity, but they want a high quality of water. So it's incumbent on us to make sure that as a region we're using our resources to the best of our ability. In July of '09, a federal judge directed the Army Corps of Engineers in the state of Georgia to get congressional reauthorization for the use of Lake Lanier for drinking water. Absent that reauthorization, Georgia would be limited to withdrawing the same amount of water from Lake Lanier that we did in 1973. And that ruling has obviously given us a lot of concern about our ability, from an economic development point of view, to continue to attract industry and to grow and to even maintain the quality of life that we have here in Georgia.

The judge's ruling has set in motion by Governor Purdue a four-part strategy that we think can address the concerns. Obviously, we're going to appeal the ruling because we believe that utilizing Lake Lanier as a water source is the most economical as well as the most environmentally friendly solution for our water needs. He's also entered into a new round of negotiations with the governor of Alabama and governor of Florida. He's also asked the Georgia congressional delegation to look at the reauthorization of Lake Lanier, which would need to happen for us to continue to use the water of Lake Lanier. And then he's also launched a contingency planning initiative, which is, How do we manage these resources going forward? And a key component of that is in conservation and efficiencies, which take us back to business solutions and business opportunities as well. It's not "to the detriment of one state is not to the benefit of another." I think that's an old model that doesn't work. When you look at foreign direct investment, they don't think about states; they think about the region. I think a good example of that is Kia [Motors]. We worked with Alabama in partnership to get Kia here. We also worked with Tennessee when they located the Volkswagen plant. Really, we have a regional economic development initiative going on; now we just have to make sure that we are sharing and we're partnering in how we manage those resources.

Moderator: Commissioner, how has the economic crisis impacted operations at Georgia's parks, and what are the broader implications of decreased access to these locations for healthy places and for sustainable communities?

Clark: Thankfully, here in Georgia we haven't had to close any of our parks, and that's been one of our goals, is to try to keep the doors open. Unfortunately, what we're dealing with here is a 40 percent reduction in our state appropriations and a 24 percent projected drop in revenues, which is effectively a 33 percent decline in our budget for 2010. Now, we've already done all of the easy things like reducing our spending, trying to control our purchases. Now we've had to do some more difficult things. We've had to have layoffs, we've had to do furloughs, but at the end of the day, what we've really had to do is rethink our entire business model. What is it that our citizens want, what is it that we need to do while trying to accomplish both of our missions?

And so our big focus has been on trying to reinvest in our parks to get people outside, to get them spending money. And while I don't believe that state parks were ever developed to be self-sustaining, they were developed, in many cases, to be economic engines for the rural communities that they are in. And so, when we do things like build trails, build boat ramps, build campsites and cabins, those actually generate revenue; they bring more people out to the park. And so we are going to try to start reinvesting in our parks here in Georgia, and our hope is that we can go from having only two or three parks that make money to having maybe a third of our system make money to help leverage out the entire system.

Moderator: Commissioner, in your opinion, what is the greatest challenge, and what is the greatest opportunity, for communities engaged in community and economic development efforts, and what roles do the private and public sectors play in financing these efforts?

Clark: What we've started to see over the last few years are more partnerships. A great example of that is a new park that we are building down in Coweta County, just south of Atlanta. It's a beautiful park on the Chattahoochee. It's going to serve multiple purposes, like protecting the watershed. It's also going to be a gateway park so for folks that are in the inner city, that are in Atlanta, it'll be close enough for them to drive to get an outdoor experience and understand stewardship. But what we've been able to do there is partner with the local community and share the resources and share the costs as we're developing that park.

Another good example is in land conservation; how do we protect these very special places? Since Governor Purdue introduced his land conservation program in 2005, we've preserved over 150,000 acres here in the state of Georgia. And many of those, it's by a lot of different partnerships. Down in southwest Georgia, down on the corner of the Alabama and Florida line, we preserved a property called Silver Lake down on Lake Seminole. We got funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we got funding from the Doris Duke Foundation, from the Woodruff Foundation, from the county, the National Wild Turkey Foundation, Southern Company, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, all came together, as well as the conservation fund and the Audubon [Society] to help us put together a very dynamic financing package in order to save that property.

We're seeing that same type of partnership develop all over the state as communities realize economic development is not just about bringing in a new industry. If they want to bring in that new industry and want to be competitive now, they have to have a certain quality of life, and that means green space, it means outdoor recreation. And at the same time, when they do build those recreation facilities, when they do have those green spaces, then they can bring in a whole other economic development sector from tourism, and bring those into the community.

Moderator: To wrap up, commissioner, what are the critical issues on the horizon for economic development in the Southeast?

Clark: I think there are a variety of issues out there. I mean, we can talk about transportation, water, globalization, and tax structure; all of these are going to be key. But I think one of the areas—and of course we're particularly involved in it—is in federal climate legislation. The conversations that I've been having with my counterparts is that climate change legislation doesn't need to be a "one size fits all." So I think we have to go into any type of climate legislation looking at what's going to be the impact to the economy right now, and how are the different regions of the United States going to tackle the problem so that they can come out ahead.

From our point of view here in Georgia, I think a key issue for us as we continue to be a dynamic and growing state is, Todd, to create a culture of conservation. And we're spending a lot of time on a three-part process where we want to make the public aware of their natural resources. We want them to get involved and get outside so they can have an experience. And if they do those things, we firmly believe that that will lead them to be better stewards and to have that culture of conservation, so that the next generation does an even better job of protecting the environment while at the same time growing their economy.

Moderator: Commissioner Clark, thank you for joining us today.

Clark: Thanks for giving me this opportunity. Todd.

Moderator: This concludes our podcast. We've been speaking with Chris Clark, commissioner of Georgia's Department of Natural Resources. For more podcasts on this topic and others, visit the Atlanta Fed's Web site at www.frbatlanta.org. If you have comments or questions, please e-mail podcast@frbatlanta.org. Thanks for listening.