By Maria Saporta
If it’s 2019, it must be Pittsburgh.
About 110 Atlanta leaders will be attending the 23rdannual LINK (Leadership, Involvement, Networking, Knowledge) trip to Pittsburgh from May 15 to May 18.
The LINK trip will be a little different this year as organizers have decided to make the experience more intentional and more impactful by targeting certain lessons that are particularly relevant to Atlanta.
Participants also are being asked to become more engaged in taking those lessons back home and driving real change in the Atlanta region.
Among the key areas that the LINK trip will target are:
- Driving Innovation: The City/University Partnership;
- P4 Equity Measures: The Hazelwood Green Site;
- The Hill District: Preserving Cultural Legacy and Fighting for the Soul of a Community;
- Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Cultural District; and
- Building Welcoming Communities through Interfaith Relationships.
The LINK delegation will be split up into different topic groups on Thursday afternoon, when they will take a deeper look into those issues. Each topic area will have two Atlanta LINK delegates co-chairing the program, and the expectation will be to get the LINK delegation engaged on how best to deploy the lessons learned when they get back home.
“It’s an evolution,” said Stephen Causby, who coordinates the organizing of the LINK trip for the Atlanta Regional Commission. “The goal is to be more inclusive. We will have fewer sessions but more opportunities for feedback. We are asking people to dig in.”
It has become quite competitive to receive an invitation to be part of the LINK trip. An experiment that was tried during the last couple of years – LINK Forward (a group of about 20 veteran leaders that had a separate agenda) – has been abandoned because it segregated the older and younger members of the trip.
Instead, there will be 27 new participants going to Pittsburgh, and each of them has been paired up with a “buddy” LINK veteran who will make sure to welcome the newbies by inviting them to network.
“ We are being more egalitarian,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission. “The people who are on the trip hold a seat, and with that, comes civic responsibility to learn, engage, bring back lessons to Atlanta.”
Causby said it will be more like a regional working laboratory.
One of the centerpieces of the trip will be to explore the relationship between the universities and the larger community in fostering innovation and new technologies. Over the past three decades, Pittsburgh has been transformed from a struggling manufacturing town to one that’s embracing the new economy.
“The development of the robotic center at Carnegie Mellon (in 1978) really paved the way for the transformation of Pittsburgh from a steel town to a city of innovation with the deployment of new technology,” Causby said.
In 2014, Carnegie Mellon signed a far-reaching Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Pittsburgh to formalize a relationship essential to the success of research, development and the deployment of technology.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is committed for the city to be a testing ground for innovative ways to make government for effective and improve people’s lives.
Another key area of focus will be on P4 (People/Planet/Place/Performance) as a way to make the city more inclusive.
“There’s the whole theme of the two Pittsburghs,” Causby said. “The mayor gave the city marching orders to develop tools to improve economic mobility. There was not one person who we sat down with who didn’t say equity was a concern. They have done a much better job than Atlanta has in addressing income inequality and economic mobilities. They are taking intentional steps in addressing these gaps.”
The development of the arts and cultural organizations also will be a centerpiece of the trip. Unlike some previous LINK years when the arts was an afterthought, several arts leaders from Atlanta will see how Pittsburgh was able to revitalize its downtown and other communities by investing in the arts.
A 1-cent sales tax that has been in place for 25 years in Allegheny County (which encompasses about half of the greater Pittsburgh population of 2.4 million) invest in regional assets throughout the county – from parks and greenspaces to sports, civic facilities as well as arts and cultural organizations. That has translated into about $205.5 million to support the operations and capital improvements of the region’s arts and cultural organizations.
Allegheny County has 1.2 million, but only 310,000 people live in the City of Pittsburgh. The county has 135 municipalities (cities, towns and villages), and the 10-county region has a total of 635 municipalities.
“It’s one of the most fragmented regions in the United States,” Causby said. “In metro Atlanta, we have 74 cities in the 10 county region of 4.5 million.”
Philanthropic foundations play a major role in helping keep the region together. They include the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Heinz Endowments, the PNC Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation among others. The 10 largest foundations in Pittsburgh had assets of $8.8 billion in 2017, and they gave away a total of $456 million.
Another highlight of the Pittsburgh LINK trip will be those in attendance. It will be Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ first LINK trip. She will be joined by Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County Commission; Michael Thurmond, CEO of DeKalb County; Charlotte Nash, chair of the Gwinnett Commission as well as a host of other government leaders.
It has been many years since the LINK trip has had so many top regional leaders as part of the delegation. Of special note, Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto will visit with the LINK delegation on Wednesday night.
The Atlanta delegation also will include several people who are either Pittsburgh natives or who have lived and worked in the Pennsylvania city. They include: Chris Tomlinson, executive director of SRTA/GRTA/the ATL; Eric Robbins, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta; Steve Labovitz, a partner with Dentons US; Debra Lam, managing director of Georgia Tech’s Smart Cities; and Dave Williams, a vice president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Causby is hopeful the Pittsburgh LINK trip will be a stimulating experience that will lead to tangible results.
“ Pittsburgh presented us with a unique opportunity this year,” he said. “We were surprised and impressed by the sheer number of stories they had to offer us.
We will explore those stories and debrief in real time on what are we learning and how does this apply back home.”