PUBLISHED:September 14, 2010

Christopher Kay '78: A conversation with new COO of The Trust for Public Land

In mid-summer, Chris Kay became the chief operating officer of The Trust for Public Land (TPL), one of the country’s leading land conservation organizations. It’s the latest move in an exceptionally diverse career. After serving as an equity partner at four law firms, including Foley & Lardner and his own, Kay, Gronek and Latham, both in Orlando, Kay joined Toys “R” Us as executive vice president and general counsel in 2000, eventually becoming its chief operating officer; he oversaw the 2005 sale of the retail giant to a consortium of private equity firms for $6.6 billion.

A member of Duke Law School’s Board of Visitors and the Board of Directors of the American Medical Association, Kay spoke with Duke Environmental Law about taking the helm of the nonprofit TPL and its work to conserve land for public parks, community gardens, historic sites, rural lands, and natural areas.

Duke Environmental Law: Please put your new position into context in your overall career.

Chris Kay: I have been blessed to be part of several successful entrepreneurial organizations that make a significant and beneficial impact. One attractive aspect of TPL is that it, too, is a very successful and entrepreneurial organization. For the last 38 years, TPL has been doing some fantastic things that benefit people today and for generations to come.

Although this is a very difficult time economically in this country, the current financial situation has created rare opportunities for TPL to acquire and save strategic and valuable properties that may otherwise be developed when the economy turns around. If we don’t get and preserve this land now, we may never have the opportunity again.

Working with TPL provides me with the ability to join a talented group of entrepreneurial conservationists that have an outstanding performance record and a noble mission.

I was asked recently at a conference to compare what it’s like to work for a tax-exempt organization and an organization like Toys “R” Us. Well, there are many more similarities than you think. In both organizations, you have quality people who are dedicated to working together and doing a great job. And each has the same initial mission — to sustain itself so that it can do more of the same kind of work in the organization’s future. One of the things I’ll be doing at TPL is to make sure that we have a certain amount of effort devoted to the sustainability of our organization.

DEL: What factors make a parcel worth preserving?

Kay: There are a number of factors, such as the strategic value of this real estate. We ask ourselves a number of questions when we review a proposal.

To what extent can we take this property and combine it with other parcels to be able to create a park or to create a buffer zone or green space or to conserve some very valuable land? For example, in the Denver area, we are buying a parcel along the South Platte River from a trucking company. A real estate developer is going to donate an adjacent parcel to make the park even larger, because the developer has adjacent to that parcel a huge, separate parcel for the future development of either condos or apartment buildings for downtown Denver. We assess the strategic value of that particular parcel — its location and the willingness of other landowners to contribute to it to make something really spectacular along the South Platte River.

Another question: To what extent is the local government going to be able to acquire the property from TPL and become the steward of the park? If we acquire a property, our mission is to turn it into a park or a conservation area that is ultimately owned by a local municipality, a county, the state or, the federal government. And since it is TPL’s goal to not own land, if the governmental organization doesn’t want to obtain it, the property is less attractive for us.

And there are other questions we ask at TPL. For example, is the land home to certain species which don’t live anywhere else? Is there government support to eventually purchase and preserve that land to conserve a home for those species?

DEL: How do you get the political and public buy-in if, say, government is feeling strapped for cash?

Kay: We work closely with governments at all levels. Frankly, that is necessary for our success, but it’s also essential for conservation in this country. TPL has a track record of success of almost 40 years. Federal governmental agencies and state and local organizations all know our track record and work well with us, which is extremely important. And sometimes, governmental officials come to us and say, “We think this is something important to preserve. Can you work with us to achieve our common goal?” And we’ll do so. At the federal level, we try to understand what kinds of projects that federal agencies want to protect, and we also work with federal land managers to take a longer-term look at what properties need to be protected.

We also help local community groups that would like to see conservation at the ballot box. We help those groups put together measures to go on the ballot that would pay for conservation — measures such as local bonds or taxes. And our Conservation Finance group has the best record in the country. Good political consultants win 55 or 60 percent of their races, and great ones win 65 percent. But our team wins 75 percent to 80 percent of the races they work on. I know this sounds like shameless salesmanship, but our team has a record of success with which all good Duke basketball fans can identify and embrace.

DEL: How has the recession helped or hurt your cause?

Kay: It’s done both. It is hard to say that the recession has “helped” us or anyone in this country, but some projects ticketed for development fell through, meaning those properties could now be protected and preserved, and often at prices lower than they would have cost five or six years ago.

But the recession has clearly hurt. It’s a challenge to find the money we need to pay for these properties. Like all nonprofits, we’ve found that it’s been tougher than usual to raise money from individuals and foundations. And the governments to whom we sell land are often strapped for money to make such purchases and maintain these new parks.

But what I’ve found at TPL is a group of creative and dedicated conservationists, people who have successfully jumped over various hurdles for many years. They are truly the best people to deal with challenges that occur in this recession. So if anybody can get it done, it’s this group here. And we are getting it done. But the question is how much will we be able to do in the future.

We’re a leaner organization than we’ve been in the past, but we are now employing a number of tools we used in corporate America to make us more effective and efficient. As just one example, we are developing a sophisticated and comprehensive data base that identifies each area of expertise, each type of real estate, legal, regulatory, and philanthropic experience, as well as ongoing relationships with government, corporations, and foundations, that currently exists within the organization.

DEL: Make the case for open space, be they urban parks or more rural and natural areas.

Kay: We’re going to need more parks because more people are moving to the cities. We have data which suggests that 50 percent of Americans live on five percent of the land in this country. What do we need, as individuals, when we live in cities? One of the things we need is a place to appreciate nature. That’s particularly true for our kids. Second, many of us need a place where we can exercise, which will certainly help with a lot of our country’s health-related issues. Third, we need a place to go for contemplation, and parks are traditionally places for people to go to relax and chill out. As our cities become more and more dense, we have a greater and greater need for parks that provide those kinds of benefits.

We’re also working to demonstrate the ways that parks benefit cities economically. One measure is simple — you can see what the property values are like for businesses and residences adjacent to parks. It’s a substantial boost. I also believe that … with the creation of parks, you’re going to see more and more economic activity around them. TPL’s Center for City-Park Excellence has published studies which show the various benefits that accrue to a community as a result of having parks. We’re working on a new study which will show the economic benefit to a community of having a park within it.

Finally, we are also looking at how parks benefit us on a national basis. I recently spoke to my American Medical Association team about how we can work with TPL and the Centers for Disease Control to determine how parks may reduce our health-care costs We need to answer several questions: “How do parks help fight obesity? How do they help manage stress? Can we show that people who live closer to parks have fewer doctor visits for any of a number of issues? We’re going to try to understand those issues.

As more people move into cities and as we have more and more stress on the people and infrastructures of those cities, we’re going to need to have more parks for all those reasons.

And then, of course, there are rural and natural lands, the mainstay of TPL’s work for several decades. We have saved over two million acres of such land. We also do a very good job preserving historic land — including tribal and native lands, battlefields, and the boyhood home of Martin Luther King. But one of the things I’m learning is that these kinds of lands are highly beneficial even to people who live in cities, because those lands help clean the water which is used by people living in cities. We’re all concerned about clean drinking water. I’ve read studies that suggest that buying land — watershed properties — will be far more economically advantageous to us than not buying them. One study indicated that spending $1 billion on the right properties to protect watersheds would be the functional equivalent of spending $4 billion on water treatment and filtration projects. That is a staggering 4-1 ratio to buy the land and conserve it in a natural state rather than spending four times as much to construct man-made water-filtration systems.

There are far more knowledgeable experts within TPL to make the case — we truly have subject-matter experts at TPL (and as a former trial lawyer I appreciate great expert witnesses!), but hopefully I have conveyed some of the many ways in which we all benefit from the preservation of open spaces across this great country of ours.