Joint Pittsburgh - Allegheny County development agency serious possibility

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The city and county are using the resignation of Pittsburgh's redevelopment director to study merging their separate economic development agencies.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Tom Murphy issued a statement yesterday saying they may create a joint development agency to "create a one-stop shop for a business-friendly Allegheny County," as Onorato put it.

The county's Economic Development Department and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority were merged from 1997 through 2000, with URA Director Mulugetta Birru running both agencies. Then County Executive Jim Roddey ended the arrangement in his first year in office, saying the county needed a full-time director.

Birru announced his resignation Thursday, to join a Detroit-area development agency. Murphy said Birru's departure gives the city and county a chance to build "a joint arrangement that will enable us to better market our area to outside companies and developers and that will allow us to take better advantage of the natural strengths of Pittsburgh."

A joint committee of the Pittsburgh and Allegheny County councils held a meeting on combining the agencies in March. City Councilman William Peduto called for a single development agency with a unified staff, with a separate planning office to handle small-scale neighborhood projects.

Back then, the idea got a cool reception from Birru and Onorato's development director, Dennis Davin.

Davin cautioned the two government bodies to go slow, saying a merger would take much planning. Birru said a similar merger in Louisville, Ky., has not been a complete success. "Many of the inner-city communities are being left behind," Birru told the group.

Birru's resignation is effective July 31. The statement by Onorato and Murphy said that affords the city and county two months to study the merger.

Davin would be an obvious choice to run both agencies: He was Birru's housing director at the URA, before leaving city government in 2003 to direct Gov. Ed Rendell's Pittsburgh regional action team. He left the governor's office this year to work for Onorato.

Both of the state-appointed teams looking at city finances -- the Act 47 team and the fiscal oversight board -- have urged the city to merge functions with the county and other local governments. Roddey, a member of the oversight board, said yesterday "if it's a true merger that would save the city and county money, that's a good thing."

Roddey said he fired Birru in 2000 because he was a "part-time director" who divided his time between the two agencies, working two days at one office and three days at another. He said the city and county offices were both fully staffed with employees with overlapping duties.

In a "real merger," Roddey said, "you could downsize by probably 40 people. That would save money."


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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