Whitney Clark wins praise for his goal to make the Mississippi an enduring regional resource.
Whitney Clark's career came as a gift from his grandfather.
The Minneapolis native and executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River has early memories of fishing with his grandfather up north, listening to the water and looking out at trees and rocky points.
"From an early age, I had a lot of contented hours in a boat ... with someone who cared about me," Clark said recently. From those experiences, he developed a passion for the natural world.
At 49, Clark is 15 years into his tenure as head of the nonprofit advocacy group, a role that will be critical in coming months as St. Paul develops the Great River Passage Plan for the 17 miles of river through the city.
The group focuses on the portion of the Mississippi that wends from the border of Hennepin County past Hastings. It is paying close attention to plans for the shuttered Ford plant property, the Watergate Marina near Crosby Park and Pig's Eye Lake on the east side of the river.
The fate of the Ford plant remains undetermined. The city is looking to expand and enhance Watergate, which Clark's organization currently supports. He also supports the sensitive opening of the Pig's Eye area for public use.
"We think expanding the ways the public can use the river is important," Clark said. "People who use the river more have a bigger stake in making sure it's protected for the long term."
Clark has waged winning as well as bruising and losing battles over the years, but supporters say he has maintained both his passion for the environment and a reputation as a good guy.
Focused on three main areas
The Friends organization now works on three avenues: land conservation, watershed protection and land-use policies in the river corridor. The group successfully opposed the $1 billion Bridges of St. Paul riverfront project, which was rejected by the City Council in 2007. Despite the group's opposition, St. Paul put up a floodwall and Minneapolis allowed a playing field to be built at DeLaSalle High School near downtown.
Lately, Clark said, he's thrilled with the commitment of leaders in both cities on protecting the river.
A flurry of issues surrounding development of the recently closed Ford plant could be sticky. "If it goes right, it could be a huge coup for the whole city," he said. "We see it as an opportunity to create a new river-oriented neighborhood with expanded parks."
Clark said he pushed for a full evaluation of pollution on the site. He also wants to see new hydrology technology used to prevent runoff.
Former Council Member Pat Harris, who represented that area, pushed for Clark's appointment to a site task force. "I have a lot of respect for him as a person and as an advocate. His positions are clear and he's passionate about what he does," Harris said.
On the other side is Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson, who supported the DeLaSalle field. She said she hasn't been impressed with the Friends group. "I just wish I could point to something they've been a champion of in Minneapolis, but I can't," Johnson said.
Minneapolis Park Board Chairman John Erwin, however, said Clark is a great partner. "He has donors giving money to help [Friends] help us," Erwin said. "Whitney Clark has been interested in greening the river on both sides, even before the Park Board."
Clark said he's mindful of being respectful to those on other sides. "I understand that mayors and city councils have to balance a lot of conflicting interests," he said.
His constituent, however, remains the same: "We pride ourselves on never selling out the resource. What's good for the river is always going to be the most important thing."
Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson