For the Pittsburgh region, change is busting out all over

Despite city's reputation for resistance, many areas of civic life head in a new direction

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Consider the past year's transitions in a city known to view change with the same hesitation its drivers use to approach tunnels:

A boosterish, clean-up-the-city mayor, replacing an aloof 12-year incumbent, focuses immediately on carrying out long-stalled plans to revitalize Downtown.

A newcomer from Boston takes over a stalemated school system and jump-starts a reorganization plan which many considered long overdue.

And, a new Catholic bishop is on the way, replacing the soft-spoken man who's been the region's spiritual leader for 18 years.

Add to the list quieter successions among chief executives at The Carnegie Museums, Mellon Financial and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The Pittsburgh Pirates switch managers, Duquesne University replaces its basketball coach and the Pittsburgh Penguins remove the general manager who had guided them since 1989.

In a place where people supposedly like things to remain the same, what in the name of Harris Ferris (who took over management of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Feb. 1) is going on?

"The changes are dramatic because of the people involved who are so well known," said William Green, a political analyst and public relations consultant. "Some of it is serendipitous, and also normal, but the fact that Bishop [Donald W.] Wuerl is involved highlights it. How often do we change bishops in Western Pennsylvania? ...Whoever replaces him is going to have some big shoes to fill."

Many of the new bosses have hit the ground running, creating the impression that their constituents were thirsting for fresh approaches.

The perennially upbeat Bob O'Connor's style and visibility as mayor have contrasted with Tom Murphy's latter years. Immediately after taking office in January, the former City Council member's presence in blighted neighborhoods drew news media attention. Mr. O'Connor promised "redd-up" campaigns to create clean images while improving safety and the physical environment.

On Wednesday, he chose Canonsburg-based Millcraft Industries as the key government-supported developer in the Fifth-Forbes corridor, where Mr. Murphy's efforts famously failed.

Mr. O'Connor is fortunate in succeeding a mayor whose popularity had plummeted by the end of his long tenure and who had overseen, at the insistence of state officials, the toughest part of overhauling the city's budget to save the city from bankruptcy.

"I think Pittsburghers have kind of accepted things for a long time, both good and bad, and now that there's a new sense of leadership, a new energy, it's contagious," Mr. O'Connor said, referring to how news stories now call attention to Pittsburgh's balanced budget as opposed to deficits, to the new airlines using Pittsburgh International Airport instead of US Airways cutbacks, and to Downtown developers rather than empty storefronts.

Mr. O'Connor is a lifelong Pittsburgher who well knows the local culture's reputation for resisting change.

Mark Roosevelt, on the other hand, lacked familiarity with the region until applying for and taking the job of Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Aug. 29. He succeeded John Thompson, whose tenure was marked by bickering with and among school board members, blocking plans to close declining schools, fixing the budget and making other changes.

Before arriving from Boston, Mr. Roosevelt said, he was "warned at great length about Pittsburgh's aversion to change."

Asked from whom he received such cautions, he replied quickly: "Everybody."

Yet he found a majority of board members, school officials and parents ready to accept a massive restructuring plan by February. He believes the public school changes are part of a broader "window of opportunity" in which alterations to economic development and intergovernmental coordination could provide a much brighter future than has been on Pittsburgh's horizon in some time.

"Sometimes these belief systems, such as the idea that Pittsburgh is averse to change, take on a weight of their own and become an obstacle in themselves," Mr. Roosevelt said. "The belief that it is true can become the reality, like if we had decided to back off [from school reorganization] because of it."

Key personnel changes for the region's sports teams have one thing in common: In each case, by no coincidence, they involved organizations with woeful won-lost records of late.

The Pirates switched managers, from Lloyd McClendon to Jim Tracy, but their on-field performance has been even worse one-fourth through the season than in past years.

The Penguins let go of General Manager Craig Patrick after a series of finishes among the NHL's worst, and the timing of his replacement is unknown.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the new Duquesne basketball coach, Ron Everhart, has inspired hope in a program with 19 losing seasons in the past 20. In a month and a half on a job which seemed hopeless under his predecessors, he has attracted a group of notable recruits to return hope for next season to the Bluff.

And for one of the few times in nearly four decades, scratch Dr. Cyril H. Wecht from any official position, because a federal indictment forced him to step down as medical examiner in January. Elsewhere, write in the name of Stephen G. Bland, to be officially hired this week as the Port Authority of Allegheny County's chief executive.

Among others still in their first year on the job, Robert Kelly is chief executive officer of Mellon Financial, David M. Hillenbrand is president of Carnegie Museums and William Carl III is president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where predecessor Carnegie S. Calian achieved legendary status during his 25-year stewardship.

Additionally, many civic leaders are expecting a stronger role in moving the region forward from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, under the leadership of James Rohr. The PNC Financial Services Group executive took over as conference chairman this year.

The one thing all of these leaders have in common, somewhat ironically in a story based on change, is that they are white men. There is nothing that appears imminent to alter that reality in a region where prominent roles for aspiring women and African Americans have been limited.

Joel Tarr, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of history and policy, said he would like to see shake-up of the many influential boards in the region to represent younger, more diverse viewpoints.

That might stir an overhaul in thinking similar to what helped Portland, Ore., hurdle from a stagnant, midlevel city in the 1970s to the high regard in which it is held today as an urban model, Dr. Tarr said. A number of Pittsburgh's prominent family foundations have passed their leadership recently to younger generations, but that sort of transition has been less apparent in the public realm.

For now, the professor said, it's a little early to say if all the new blood at Pittsburgh's various top levels is going to coalesce and amount to much.

"I think there's a lot of things going on around the city that are very interesting," he said, "but we'll maybe need five years to really judge it."

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger image.
Related story:

Quiet bishop Wuerl plans to be heard in Washington D.C.



Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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