By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on May 24, 2019
The Atlanta Regional Commission’s 2019 LINK trip to Pittsburgh resonated on several levels for the delegation of more than 110 metro leaders who visited the Pennsylvania city from May 15 to May 18.
The emphasis was two-fold. Every Pittsburgh leader who addressed the delegation spoke of equity and inclusion – often repeating the phrase, “If it’s not for all, it’s not for us.”
Pittsburgh also touted the level of regional cooperation – especially between the city of Pittsburgh with about 311,000 people and Allegheny County, with about 1.2 million people in a larger region of 2.4 million people. The theme of cooperation extended beyond local governments to the city’s top universities and foundations.
Cooperation was an essential factor in helping Pittsburgh transform from a dying city with a shrinking steel industry and manufacturing sector to a city recognized as a leader in robotics and innovation.
The presence of robust philanthropic foundations also provided funding to help spark a revival of Pittsburgh’s downtown area into a cultural district. A county-wide quality-of-life, half-penny sales tax also supports the areas parks, libraries, sports and cultural institutions.
The 2019 LINK trip also refreshed the entire experience by seizing on the lessons in real time by breaking down the delegation into working groups so they could apply ideas to metro Atlanta.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto provided a history lesson saying that during the city’s industrial peak, it had created “the greatest disparity in America between the have’s and the have nots.”
When its steel industry tanked, the Pittsburgh region experienced a brain drain and population loss. Now its economy has stabilized and begun to grow. But new residents are putting a strain on issues of affordability and equity.
Majestic Lane, Pittsburgh’s newly-appointed chief equity officer, said there was a moral and economic imperative for inclusive growth.“
Intergenerational poverty is a lot more serious than gentrification,” Lane told the delegation. “How do we create places where everybody feels they are part of it? Those are the places of the future.”
Pittsburgh, under Peduto’s leadership, has adopted a P4 (people, planet, place and performance) policy. “If we are going to use government dollars, you have to ask the question of how is it going to benefit people,” Peduto said.
The message hit home for many LINK participants.
Kevin Greiner, president and CEO of Gas South, said Pittsburgh’s governments helped convene stakeholders around the theme of equity.
“Equity is conspicuously missing from economic development conversations in Atlanta,” Greiner said. “Pittsburgh is ahead of us on that.”
Rockdale Commission Chairman Oz Nesbitt said he was “pleasantly surprised” that both whites and blacks talked about the racial disparities. “In Atlanta we just don’t get that many white folks talking about it,” he said. “Here they were all saying the same things. When it’s just black folks mentioning it, it’s one sided.”
Even people working on the unique partnership between the universities and the city of Pittsburgh had adopted the challenge.
Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro 21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said: “The equity lens needs to be present. It’s the intersection of technology and humanity.”
Dan Gilman, chief of staff for the mayor of Pittsburgh, credited Debra Lam for the “massive” agreement between the city and the president of Carnegie Mellon. They helped create “a national model of cities and universities working together,” Gillman said.
Lam served as Pittsburgh’s chief of innovation and performance until December 2016 when she moved to Atlanta to become managing director of Smart Cities at Georgia Tech.
She told her fellow LINK attendees the question is how to take the most innovative technology and apply it to community. Georgia Tech has established a “data-sharing” agreement with the city of Atlanta, and that could be expanded to other entities.
Tim Hynes, president of Clayton State University, said, “In some ways, Atlanta is in a better position to take advantage of higher education than Pittsburgh,” because of the number of institutions of higher learning that exist in the Atlanta region.
The area of arts and cultural development also resonated with the group.
Allegheny County also dedicates half of a penny sales tax to support parks, arts and cultural organizations.
In the late 1980s, the philanthropic community, under the leadership of H.J. “Jack” Heinz II, created the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. That now includes a 14-block area that includes 90 retailers, 50 restaurants, seven theaters, eight public parks, numerous art installations, a dozen galleries and three historic theaters.
Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, said Pittsburgh had married real estate with the development of cultural organizations.
Atlanta could do the same. “We are going to bring together the arts and culture folks with economic development,” Shipman said. “It’s a broader definition of quality of life.”
Lara Smith, managing director of Dad’s Garage, also saw potential in Atlanta for a quality of life tax that “looped in parks, libraries and the arts.” That working group will explore the next step for such a program.
Joe Bankoff, a former CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, said the Pittsburgh trip showed the value of having leaders engaged.“
Leadership continues to matter,” Bankoff said. “Leaders show up and they are ready to talk.”
The LINK trip included a strong representation of metro Atlanta leaders. But there was widespread disappointment that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms canceled at the last minute, which caused some to wonder about her commitment to regional cooperation.
David Miller, professor of public policy at the University of Pittsburgh, said it’s been an issue in Pittsburgh, the most fragmented region in the country. There are 130 municipalities in Allegheny County alone.
He had an epiphany. “I could spend my entire life working on consolidation,” he said. “Maybe it isn’t about the number of governments. It’s how do we get those governments to work together. The coordination between the city and county is remarkable.”
Stephen Causby, who coordinates the LINK trips on behalf of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said this LINK trip was designed to bring back ideas to Atlanta by adopting action items during the trip. On previous trips “some of the mojo just dies when we leave.”
Felicia Moore, president of the Atlanta City Council, said she was inspired by what she saw – especially the partnership between the local governments and foundations.“
Many of the problems, issues or challenges are solvable,” she said. “I came away a bit more hopeful. We can take this back to our region. ARC already has the framework to continue this.
Tom Reed, mayor of Chattahoochee Hills, agreed.
“In the past, I’ve always felt like there’s so much enthusiasm and it peters out,” Reed said, adding he really appreciated the amount of conversation among LINK attendees. “Things are going to change because of the things that happened here. It was hugely powerful.”
Charlotte Nash, chair of the Gwinnett County Commission, summed it up this way. “Kudos on the changes and the ability to interact with each other,” she said. “Pittsburgh was a great choice.”