Allegheny Conference chief aims for growth

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Dennis Yablonsky hadn't been on the job as chief executive of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development a week but was already comfortable with the people he will be working with.

It's not surprising. By his own estimate, he knows 40 of the 50 members of the board of directors and at least 150 members of the Regional Investors Council of the conference.

Still, when asked how the new job was going, his said "It's like drinking from a fire hose."

Mr. Yablonsky, 56, has a lot on his plate.

While the region is not sinking into the mire of the recession as quickly as the rest of the country, the Allegheny Conference is trying to make sure it doesn't start.

Just days before Mr. Yablonsky took over the job, his predecessor, F. Michael Langley, was listing all of the economic development that has been occurring in the 10 counties of Western Pennsylvania that are the focus of the conference.

A longtime Mt. Lebanon resident who was born in McKeesport and raised in Baldwin, Mr. Yablonsky remembers Pittsburgh's days of steel making, when the J&L mill dominated the South Side. He also remembers the years after it closed, when the region was casting about without any economic legs on which to stand.

CEO of U.S. Steel John Surma, the chairman of the conference's board, described Mr. Yablonsky as someone who has had every seat around the table.

He has run his own software company that he took to an initial public stock offering. He has run incubators to nurture technology companies. And for the last six years he was in government, as the secretary of the state's Department of Community and Economic Development.

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development was formed in 1943 as the Allegheny Conference on Post-War Planning, but was incorporated under its current name in 1944. In the conference's early days it was focused on flood control and smoke control, and under the conference's leadership all of the homes in Pittsburgh were converted from coal to either efficient coal furnaces or natural gas.

It was also instrumental in the successful developments of Point State Park, Gateway Center, the Lower Hill District, Three Rivers Stadium, the U.S. Steel Tower, Oxford Centre and PPG Place.

The conference also has the distinction of being behind the less remarkable developments of Allegheny Center, Route 65 through Manchester and Penn Center in East Liberty, which is finally catching on 52 years after ground was broken. In 1997 the conference failed in its efforts to pass the 11-county half-percent sales tax to fund the two new stadiums and the convention center.

In all that time, there have only been five other men who have led the conference. Mr. Yablonsky is the third in this decade.

He said he wants to focus the region on energy -- both developing green energy, such as Falbeg Corp.'s mirror manufacturing plant by the airport for collecting solar energy used for large-scale solar power plants, and on the extraction of coal and gas in this energy-rich region.

"An energy strategy is going to be one of our priorities," he said.

Another, he said, is to pursue the longtime goal of the conference for some sort of mass transit link between Downtown, the second-largest economic engine in the state, and Oakland, which comes in third.

In addition to linking the two business centers, a transit link also would provide students access to Downtown, which would make the area more vibrant after dark.

Mr. Yablonsky also said the region's water and sewer systems need upgrading and the brownfields need to be cleaned up for redevelopment.

"It's a very difficult time right now, but I believe it is an opportunity," he said. "I believe the region does have the assets it needs to grow."

Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699.


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