Business

Tom Martin Q&A: Nonprofit focuses on 'green' in a throwaway world

A crane with Frederick & May Construction set a form Thursday to erect a concrete wall for the Morgan County Transit Center in West Liberty. Photo taken on Thursday, June 19, 2014.
A crane with Frederick & May Construction set a form Thursday to erect a concrete wall for the Morgan County Transit Center in West Liberty. Photo taken on Thursday, June 19, 2014. Lexington Herald-Leader

Sustainability. It's one of those words that might not grab or hold your attention, but it's a word — more a practice, that many believe vital to our future. Merriam-Webster defines it as "something that is able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed." Or more to the point, "able to last or continue for a long time."

As founder and president of Sustainable Business Ventures, a nonprofit, Bobby Clark works to develop businesses, social enterprises, environmental literacy training, and entrepreneurial training using resources in ways so that they last a long time. And he joins us to talk about sustaining things in this throwaway world of ours.

Tom Martin: Let's begin with that word, sustainability. Why is it important?

Bobby Clark: As we consume things, whether we eat them, put fuel in our cars, pay the electric bills or just survive in society, we need to become more conscious about the consumption of natural resources that are limited in scope and balance how we go about living our lives and how we work.

Martin: You're working on the rebuilding of West Liberty to create a national model of post-disaster recovery. This refers to the powerful tornado of 2012. Tell us what you're doing in West Liberty.

Clark: We spent the last couple of years there working with Jonathan Miller and local officials to develop a new strategy for West Liberty: an ecotourism town built in close approximation of the Red River Gorge and Cave Run Lake, 25 and 45 minutes away respectively. The Licking River is two blocks from downtown West Liberty. To begin this probably two-decade process of transforming the town we want to build four net-zero homes. These homes would have solar and geothermal power so that the future homeowners will not have to pay electric bills. This is going to be focused on low-income families displaced by the tornado. What we're trying to do is develop a national model for post-disaster recovery. It also can be used for many, many towns in Appalachia and across the country that have been devastated economically.

Martin: Change on that scale is often very difficult for people to accept. Along comes a devastating tornado leaving little choice in the matter. Are you finding that in the aftermath of the tornado there is a more receptive attitude about this kind of thing?

Clark: Yes, I think there was an openness. We use the example of Greensburg, Kan., that in 2007 was wiped off the planet by an EF5 tornado. And what the community decided to do was rebuild a sustainable green community. They got a wind farm in and they now have 31 green buildings. 12 of those are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Before the tornado, 40,000 visitors came to this small town in Kansas. Now, over 100,000 people come from around the world to see how this town transformed itself. That's the vision we want to work with community leaders in West Liberty to create.

Martin: And in what stage of the process is West Liberty?

Clark: We're in the early stages. Thanks to a new market tax credit program, Chase Bank put up $5 million and everybody got together to develop a $27 million program to rebuild some of the community buildings that were destroyed, including a brand new health and wellness center that's going to be built.

The Commercial Bank of West Liberty was destroyed in the tornado and they've decided to build back a LEED-gold bank. They're going to use geothermal to power this bank right in downtown West Liberty. One thing we're really excited about is that this project has been accepted by the Clinton Global Initiative America. It connected us with others around the country that experience similar things like this.

Martin: From West Liberty let's come down to I-64 and travel west all the way over to Louisville where you have a project going on: an eco-sustainability district in Louisville. What's that all about?

Clark: Portland, Ore., Denver, Colo., San Francisco and other communities around the country, mainly in the west, have established what are called sustainability or eco-districts. And basically, it's a neighborhood or a downtown area that bands together and says "We want to do everything we can to be as energy efficient and sustainable as we can." So they look at say, green roofs. They look at changing the lights to LEDs and changing out the HVAC systems to more energy-star related. They look at how you can put solar on your rooftop, consuming energy that is renewable. We're excited to be working with the city of Louisville's Office of Sustainability, with the downtown development corporation, working with the mayor's office, the University of Louisville and the NuLu Business Association. NuLu is near downtown Louisville close to the Yum Arena. And this community has transformed itself. It's a hip place to go. People are coming from all over to visit this. Gil Holland built the first green building. He retrofitted a 108-year old facility and made it the first platinum LEED building in Kentucky. He and other business leaders have gotten together and are supporting our effort.

The real key is aggregation. If we can bring together 10 or 20 or 50 building owners to look at solar, look at any kind of energy efficiency, we can do that by scale, and that way we can reach out to vendors and reach out for creative financing to help us do that whole community. In the end, as the community transforms itself, it's going to be a powerful economic development tool as the folks in Louisville begin to spread the word about all the cool things that are happening in Louisville, including this eco-district.

Martin: Another focus of yours that could also be taken as "sustainability" is helping difficult-to-employ people create their own jobs. How does that work?

Clark: Back in 2009, I created the Sustainable Business Ventures nonprofit to focus on helping 16- to 24-year-old students learn how to develop a business plan so that they could pursue their own passion through a business enterprise, but with a focus on sustainability.

Well, that adapted to learning about a program in Texas called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program where they're working with inmates in prison to help them through an extensive program of entrepreneurship to create the skill set that they're going to need when they get out. Seventy percent of employers will not hire an ex-offender and what we want to do is empower these men and women when they get out with the ability to start their own business: teach problem-solving, critical thinking, team-building, selling yourself. Part of the problem, after you come out of prison is you're really down and you're having difficulty presenting yourself. This is a way to empower those folks to do that. In Texas, they've been running this program for almost 10 years. The national recidivism rate is 46.8 percent of those leaving prison will re-incarcerate within three years. The program down in Texas has a five percent recidivism rate.

Martin: You chair Bluegrass Tomorrow's Green Vision Program and an important event is coming up. Tell us when it's happening, where it's happening, and what it's about.

Clark: We're going to have, to my knowledge, the first green and sustainability summit in Central Kentucky. It's going to be Oct. 30 from 9:30 to noon at the Marriott. We're going to bring in other groups to tell us about what they've done. The summit is open to anyone.

Martin: No registration fee, but do you want people to pre-register just so you have a headcount?

Clark: Yes. They can go to bluegrasstomorrow.org and we'll have a link on the homepage because we do want to know how many people are going to come and just a little bit about them. But it's open to all.

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