Pittsburgh deals with void of leaders

As the region navigates a choppy period of flux, transition and change, it can no longer turn to a few larger-than-life leaders for guidance

So who's in charge?

Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh's presumptive mayoral winner, hasn't been elected yet. Rich Fitzgerald, who took office last year, is the third Allegheny County executive to occupy that office since its creation a dozen years ago. UPMC's Jeffrey Romoff, one of the longest-serving CEOs in Pittsburgh today, continues to expand his company globally while fending off a lawsuit over UPMC's nonprofit status by the city government.

In a city and a region long accustomed to a few larger-than-life leaders making strategic decisions that are felt for generations, a vacuum seems to have opened up at the top as Pittsburgh moves through an unusually choppy period of flux, transition and change.

Think about it: After Tom Murphy left the mayor's office in 2006 after 12 years, his successor, Bob O'Connor, was in for five months before he died of cancer, and Luke Ravenstahl's seven years as mayor have ended in a grand jury investigation of his administration.

Carnegie Mellon University has had three visionary, long-serving presidents, but as of July, is under new leadership with Subra Suresh. University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg, after a reign of 17 years, will leave next year. The Heinz Endowments' head since 2008, Robert "Bobby" Vagt, just announced he is stepping down. There are new CEOs at Heinz, Highmark, U.S. Steel and PNC.

PG graphic: The region's leadership: Changes through the decades
(Click image for larger version)

Maybe Pittsburgh has just been lucky to get by with a few big players in charge.

Or maybe, it's not about a few big players anymore.

"There's a more diffuse and dispersed leadership in particular sectors, driven by particular leaders who, by doing the business of their companies or corporations, have enhanced the entire region," said Mr. Romoff, whose own $10 billion health care conglomerate, the region's largest employer, dominates the landscape.

The old days: top down

The days of concentrated leadership -- the partnership of Richard King Mellon and Mayor David L. Lawrence (who, in fact, only met once) and the post-World War II "Renaissance" of Pittsburgh, aided by the largesse of H.J. "Jack" Heinz -- are gone.

At the time, though, Mellon and Lawrence were able to operate unimpeded. During the war they founded the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, initially to combat Pittsburgh's pollution-choked environment, and then to tackle urban renewal in a project dubbed Renaissance I. And a small cadre of leaders in the 1960s and 1970s coordinated an economic development plan that would be known as Renaissance II.

Even in 1983, when Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor John Craig asked Post-Gazette editors to take a straw poll to determine the city's most influential people at the time, they found most power in the hands of a few: U.S. Steel CEO David Roderick; Henry L. Hillman, a venture capitalist; and Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri.

As the steel industry was collapsing in the 1970s and 1980s, this trifecta -- representing corporate leadership, private capital and government -- set about to reinvent Pittsburgh. By the early 1980s, skyscrapers were going up again Downtown -- One Oxford Centre, PPG Place, One Mellon Center and, later, Fifth Avenue Place.

The city got some key help in 1981. Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh -- also from Pittsburgh -- proposed what is now the Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which supported early-stage startup businesses and the commercialization of cutting-edge technologies. But the biggest builder of all was probably Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster, a former state representative who ruled the county for nearly 30 years. Foerster used his clout in Harrisburg to direct state money to the region, for Pittsburgh International Airport, the expansion of Community College of Allegheny County and, later, with the Allegheny Conference, the Regional Asset District, which provides grants from a 1 percent county sales tax to libraries, parks, cultural and sports facilities.

"No one today is as powerful as Tom Foerster was," said Mr. Romoff. "I could not imagine building that airport now."

His first two successors in the newly created job of county executive were in office too briefly to develop much of an impact: Republican Jim Roddey was defeated after one term in office after he agreed to a court order to reassess Allegheny County. His successor, Dan Onorato, served eight years as county executive and completed that tenure at the end of 2011. He ran for governor in 2010. 

Mr. Romoff and others say the city and the region may be experiencing what business schools call "distributive" leadership -- the notion that a school or a company or a community can prosper when power centers are spread over a wider area, rather than a top-down model.

"The very concept of leadership is changing all over the world," argues Aradhna Malhotra Oliphant, head of Leadership Pittsburgh, a nonprofit group that develops new leaders for southwestern Pennsylvania. "The old days when three or four men decided things in a back room at the Duquesne Club are gone."

That handful of leaders no longer have exclusive possession of information, she says, thanks to the Internet, "which makes people more interconnected, and more informed, and thus they have the kind of influence that leads to power."

Nothing could have been accomplished, however, without intense public sector leadership, argues Mulu Birru, who served as director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority in the Murphy administration.

"The difference between Pittsburgh and other cities in the transformation of their economies was the aggressive intervention by the public sector," he said, ticking off a long list of research and development centers, incubators and startups that were funded by the URA, not to mention CMU's world-renowned Robotics Institute.

Still, the city's Downtown was rebuilt mostly thanks to the intervention of Jack Heinz, who established the Cultural Trust in 1984. Carol Brown became its first president -- one of the few city leaders, then and now, who wasn't a white male.

Pittsburgh's strong philanthropic tradition helped too, with two powerful women -- Teresa Heinz Kerry and Elsie Hillman -- and the universities and medical centers themselves benefited from visionary leaders -- Wesley Posvar at Pitt, Thomas Detre at UPMC.

Under Richard Cyert, CMU was one of the first three universities in the world to "computerize" its campus "and was one of the first to talk about universities being an economic engine for growth," said Mr. Murphy. "No one was thinking about that then. Universities did research and they educated people, but Cyert was talking about how all these graduates were leaving for venture capital jobs elsewhere because there was nothing to keep them in Pittsburgh."

That "brain drain" problem would haunt the Pittsburgh psyche for years -- even as late as 1999 the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, a marketing organization later folded into the Allegheny Conference, cooked up an advertising campaign featuring "Border Guard Bob." This involved a man in an intimidating state trooper's uniform and a Smokey Bear hat standing at the Allegheny County border, holding up his hand to stop young people from leaving. It never ran.

Signs of life

Today, there are still more deaths than births in Allegheny County, but in the past five years, young people have surged into the region. And according to 2009 data, nearly half of Pittsburgh's workers aged 25 to 34 have earned at least a bachelor's degree, putting it fifth among the nation's top metropolitan areas.

Private developers have been active in East Liberty, Garfield and Lawrenceville, and along the riverfronts. Farther out, there's development at the airport, the Marcellus Shale boom is fueling growth -- amid continuing protests about its environmental impact -- and Shell is exploring building a cracker plant in Beaver County.

While outgoing Mayor Ravenstahl has sought to take credit for much of the region's growth in the past seven years, critics say he's talking about projects set in motion years ago.

"Pittsburgh is living on legacy leadership," said Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution and co-author of "The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy," published this year.

"Pittsburgh has benefited from prior leadership making transformative moves to restructure the economy and you're living off of that," said Mr. Katz, who studied Pittsburgh as part of a 2007 Brookings report on revitalizing industrial cities. "Now you need a unified, strategic, focused vision from the top. Right now you're not in the upper tier in regard to cohesive leadership and actionable items."

The city's new leaders -- presumptively Mr. Peduto, teamed with Mr. Fitzgerald -- will perhaps return to Mr. Murphy's "big ideas" model. (Witness Mr. Peduto's proposal last week for a "green" system of canals to contain stormwater runoff at the Almono project in Hazelwood, a former steel mill site being gradually developed by a consortium of local foundations with the RIDC.)

"The city is like a clock that needs to be wound up once in a while," said Mr. Murphy, who is now a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "The parks will be nice, the garbage collected, the streets paved, but at some point it begins to run down, and without strong, focused leadership you begin to pay the price, and you can see that today with the police department," whose former chief Nate Harper is facing jail time for misuse of public money.

"The city doesn't run on its own, but every now and then it needs to be wound up, and that's Bill Peduto's challenge."


Correction / Clarification (posted Oct. 28): This story has been updated to the following: Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey was defeated after one term in office after he agreed to a court order to reassess Allegheny County. His successor, Dan Onorato, served eight years as county executive and completed that tenure at the end of 2011. He ran for governor in 2010.  The original version said: "Republican Jim Roddey was defeated after one term for his decision to raise property tax assessments while Dan Onorato stepped down to pursue an unsuccessful bid for governor."


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.

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