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
For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.