Allegheny Conference, first tuned to Pittsburgh, now more regional

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Once upon a time, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a tight-knit group of business and civic leaders, was a huge player -- in fact the central player -- in the city's postwar renaissance.

Its CEO today, Dennis Yablonsky, would say it still is. He ticked off numerous initiatives -- the Regional Asset District, the Cultural Trust, Riverlife -- that the conference has spearheaded over the years.

To be sure, individual leaders get credit too: Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster for RAD, H.J. "Jack" Heinz II and later PNC's Jim Rohr for starting and nurturing the Cultural Trust, and Mayor Tom Murphy, Teresa Heinz Kerry of the Heinz Endowments for Riverlife, a nonprofit that promotes and coordinates development along the three rivers.

The point though, Mr. Yablonsky said, is that those leaders worked hand in glove with the conference, which today markets the region to potential businesses, represents the region's business community in Harrisburg, conducts research and, when necessary, serves as a "convenor" to bring disparate groups together to address regional issues.

When it was founded during World War II, perhaps there were two dozen members on the original executive committee, and then, by the '90s, about 40. Today, there are 320 members.

"The times have changed and the Conference has changed with the times." said Mr. Yablonsky. Instead of a city-centric model, the conference is now more regional, with foundations, members from all 10 counties, small- and medium-sized businesses, all of them reflecting the diversity of the regional economy, with some recent efforts crossing state lines.

While the conference regularly receives delegations from other cities who want to study Pittsburgh's successes, much remains to be done, and the conference has identified five major areas that need urgent attention: a shortage of "shovel-ready" industrial sites; a squeeze of locally based venture capital that is hampering entrepreneurs; a continuing skills gap in the local workforce; the ongoing transit and transportation crisis and the pension "time bomb" facing state and municipal budgets, including Pittsburgh.

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