Ted Turner puts his money to work tackling global issues

Ted Turner during interview in his Atlanta office. (Photo by Vino Wong of AJC)

Ted Turner during interview in his Atlanta office. (Photo by Vino Wong of AJC)

I failed you, Atlanta. I sat down to interview Ted Turner last week with one main goal: to get an answer to a question that several local business and political leaders have been asking themselves lately.

The question: How can Atlanta get its mojo back? Big ideas like going after the Olympics and building Hartsfield-Jackson have largely been responsible for turning the metro area into what it is today. But to our detriment over the past several years — to this very day — there has not been a big idea capturing our imagination.

So who better to ask about what the next big idea might be than a visionary like Turner?

He wouldn’t bite.

“I’m not a business consultant,” he said.

I asked the question a few different ways, but his head and heart are elsewhere now — on tackling nuclear disarmament, containing population growth and reducing global warming by investing in alternative energy.

Turner, 72, argued that making the globe a better place benefits Atlanta, too.

“The last time I checked, Atlanta was on the planet Earth,” he said.

Intellectually, he’s right, of course. Still, I can’t forget how much of an impact he had in helping turn around a struggling downtown Atlanta — CNN Center, Turner Field, Philips Arena and the Turner Entertainment complex beside the Downtown Connector are examples.

I covered Turner for this newspaper during part of the 1990s, and I know that several of his advisers told him there were greener pastures in the suburbs. But Turner would have no part of it.

“God knows what would have happened to Atlanta if we moved to the suburbs,” he said.

Now, however, Turner only spends about 10 percent of his time here as he tackles some of the planet’s biggest messes with his money — a running total of $1.5 billion to the U.N. and a variety of environmental and anti-nuclear causes — and his mouth.

“My top priority is nuclear weapons because they can end it all in an afternoon,” he said. “There’s going to be a nuclear-weapons accident,” he predicted, similar to the nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

Unstable governments with nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan’s, threaten the world, he said.

“We need to get rid of all nuclear weapons immediately,” he said. He knows that’s not going to happen but sees his role as pushing the envelope.

That same style takes hold when he talks about our reliance on oil and coal.

“The days of fossil fuels are over,” he said. “The trouble is we’re going to run out of atmosphere first.”

Turner is involved with promoting clean energy, favoring solar, wind and geothermal projects. He has reservations about natural gas and opposes the resurgence of nuclear power.

“Who wants to have a nuclear power plant in their backyard today?”

In the side yard of Turner Enterprises downtown — the parking lot — he has installed solar panels to help power the building. (I can’t criticize him for overlooking Atlanta on that score.)

“I think clean, reliable energy should be our top priority,” he said. The federal government should phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, he believes, and transfer that money to beefing up alternative energy sources.

He recently teamed up with Atlanta-based Southern Co. and the local power cooperative serving Cimarron, N.M., on a big solar project there.

Speaking of teams, I asked if he had an interest in becoming a sports owner again, since the Thrashers are for sale and he was instrumental in bringing pro hockey back to Atlanta. There have been persistent rumors about the Thrashers ending up in Canada as the Flames did, negating Turner’s efforts from 15 years ago.

“No, I’ve done sports — been there, done that,” he said.

(During his quest for an NHL franchise back then, I once threatened to stop a Manhattan elevator right before Turner was heading into a closed-door meeting if he didn’t give me a quote to pacify my editor. “Ted, I’m not going to get fired over you,” I remember telling him. “OK, OK,” he replied, before telling me what was going on.)

I couldn’t end the interview without asking what business accomplishment he considers his most significant. I thought he might say the influence he had on other wealthy business people to give away their money, which a lot more are doing these days.

Instead, Turner cited an Atlanta icon.

“Of my business accomplishments, I’m proudest of CNN because it brought information to people who were deprived. … There are 99 24-hour news networks in the world today. … It’s amazing. When we started, there were zero.”

- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat

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17 comments Add your comment

city slick

April 23rd, 2011
1:11 pm

can ted use some of his billions to buy the hawks? they current ownership group is worthless.


April 23rd, 2011
1:23 pm

I think turner missed a presidential run by about 10 years, mostly because of our ageist culture. I would vote for him. Turner vs. Trump? Turner in a knockout.


April 23rd, 2011
1:29 pm

Need to focus on JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!!! Oh, and by the way, J-O-B-S!!!

There’s an epidemic of long-term unemployed people, mostly “baby boomers” or folks over 40 who are “displaced” and feeling like they are a bunch of “useless has-beens”, almost completely forgotten by the news media, multi-national corporations, and rich, greedy folks out there! I’m talking about jobless (thru not fault of their own), smart, responsible, respectable, productive, and wise people who have lived here in Atlanta, Georgia almost all their lives that have been working (until the recession) their tails off to make this country, state, and city the best in the world!

Many have been waiting in “quiet desperation” hoping this is going to end soon, but not the way they’d hoped. Automation and outsourcing is killing us. Many try ‘getting by’ eating crappy, fatty, cheap fast food, deteriorating their health, using inferior, low-quality products made outside of the U.S., and taking on part-time or low-paying jobs, but with the all-time-high gas and food prices, they’re mostly one step away from losing everything!

While Congress, the MNCs, and rich elite are focusing on new ways to screw the consumers, constantly distract the masses (from their immoral, unethical, and criminal activities), and slowly taking ALL OUR FREEDOMS and RIGHT AWAY FROM US!

Good, honest, hard-working, intelligent, American families are being destroyed!

I think Ted should concentrate on some kind of project helping these older, displaced, long-term unemployed “former bread winners” out before it’s too late!


April 23rd, 2011
2:41 pm

We also need to find a way to keep people alive for 1000 years, as well as invent a universal solvent and a perpetual motion machine.


April 23rd, 2011
2:44 pm

God Bless you Ted. Happy Easter!


April 23rd, 2011
3:06 pm

Ted is known around the world so The ATL problems are too small for his taste. Hey Georgia is now controlled by the give tax cuts to the rich so everything should be right in The ATL by now. I mean the good rich people should be hiring in Georgia.

Alabama Communist

April 23rd, 2011
5:40 pm

Now that Ted has corner the Bison Market, His goal is more than being Global but putting Bison into Space so that future humans will have something to do in the year 2045

mo money

April 23rd, 2011
9:43 pm

ted turner cares about 2 things: young women and making more money. I don’t have a problem with that.

tony t

April 23rd, 2011
10:03 pm

downtown Atlanta would be FINISHED without Ted Turner. does anybody remember when all the expert executives told him to move CNN to New York? what would Atlanta be like today without CNN? without his commitment to Atlanta? i shutter to imagine.

money talks

April 23rd, 2011
11:40 pm

what was a bigger blunder for tuner: jane fonda or the merger with aol?


April 24th, 2011
6:10 am

Well…..I guess it was better than yesterdays article! I’ll take mine medium rare…..


April 24th, 2011
9:25 am

Ted is wrong about fossil fuels Renewable clean energy is a pipe dream. The big oil companies have too much power and are not going to change. We must strive to make it as clean as possible and conserve, conserve, conserve. Natural gas is our best bet for the immediate future, and nuclear power has a large role to play intermediately and long term.

Give up nuclear waepons? We won’t even give up land minds.

Ted and his ilk need to rescue the federal government from its debt before giving their fortunes away. Isn’t he just basically giving the U.N. The interest off what his money is earning? Still quite commendable, however.

His mistake was not devoting himself to Ms. Fonda.


April 24th, 2011
12:31 pm

Don’t forget Ted Turner is one of BIGGEST PRIVATE LAND OWNERS in the U.S. (if not the whole world)!

Now what is he doing with all that valuable property that he owns (including huge bison herd)???

Maybe Ted Turner should hire as many long-term unemployed baby boomers as possible as cowboys (bison herders/ranchers) and let them live off the bison utilizing clean & ‘dirty’ (bison puckies & methane gas) energy!


April 24th, 2011
10:18 pm

Ted did a lot of good with his “baseball diplomacy” as well. And didn’t he promote some kind of worldwide sports competition?

Henry Unger

April 25th, 2011
5:35 am

Yes, TN Gelding. Turner created the Goodwill Games to foster better relations between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War. It followed the U.S. boycott of the Olympics in 1980 and Russia’s boycott in 1984.


April 25th, 2011
12:42 pm

A great and unique American!


April 25th, 2011
7:45 pm

Mr. Ted Turner is the mouth of the south, and he speaks openly
whatevere he feels to say. Open minded people are good hearted people,
and by the way he is spending his wealth for the wellbeing of humanity
around the world is highly commendable. God bless him.