Leaders hope mayor's illness doesn't slow city's progress
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In the lead up to this week's All-Star game, Pittsburgh boosters bragged about the many signs of optimism in an area still recovering from decades of economic hardship: new leadership at the Pittsburgh Public Schools, an array of Downtown development projects and a renewed cooperation between city, county and state.
The public face of all that new optimism has been the upbeat Mayor Bob O'Connor, best known so far for trying to clean up the neighborhoods, "redd up" the city and finally shape up and remake the ragtag Fifth and Forbes retail district Downtown.
So now that cancer has slowed the peripatetic Mr. O'Connor, his uncertain condition raises new questions. Some wonder if the mayor's diagnosis may slow some of Pittsburgh's hard-fought civic momentum or, at the least, will test the already-fragile Pittsburgh psyche in the afterglow of a national marketing opportunity that produced inestimable benefits to the rehabilitation of the city's image at home and elsewhere.
Indeed, within the span of two days, cameras from Fox and ESPN captured the dramatic spectacle of the bridges and the water and the Downtown office towers, with broadcaster Joe Buck calling PNC Park a "little jewel." A columnist from ESPN.com called the city "one of the most underrated in the country" -- noting the absence of steel mills and the abundance of "green hills, great museums, colleges and superb architecture."
Yesterday, though, as the networks left town and travelers scrambled to find a way out, Mr. O'Connor remained hospitalized, recovering from a round of chemotherapy. And the images dominating local TV were of long lines at Pittsburgh International Airport and solemn-faced doctors discussing his cancer-stricken condition.
The mayor's "love for Pittsburgh is an important part of our momentum," said Max King, president of The Heinz Endowments, the region's second-largest philanthropic organization. "I do share the sense that there is a really significant and exciting community momentum here, and I think we can sustain it. The very best way to sustain it is to have Bob being a part of that team effort."
The question of momentum is "important," Mr. King added. One is "never quite sure how it gets rolling, how it keeps rolling, how it stops. One is always concerned about that."
The mayor's administration remains optimistic about the mayor's quick recovery -- and claims nothing will stop in his absence.
Even the effort to redevelop Fifth and Forbes will march on. The mayor told chief of staff B.J. Leber that he "wants nothing to lag," according to Urban Redevelopment Authority director Jerry Dettore. "Everything is proceeding as quickly as we can."
PNC Financial Services Group Senior Vice President Gary Jay Saulson, in charge of completing the bank's new 23-story Fifth Avenue skyscraper by the end of 2008, predicted that the momentum building Downtown "will continue."
The projects under way are "in the infancy stage" but "going in the right direction. I'm sure they'll continue."
The reality is that the many efforts to change Pittsburgh -- physically, economically or socially -- involve hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of people across an array of fields.
It was the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust -- and not the mayor's office -- that announced plans this week for the biggest housing development in Downtown history.
It was PNC Chairman James Rohr -- and not the mayor -- who recently announced plans for a new tower along Fifth Avenue and who, as chairman of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, will lead the planning for the city's 250th anniversary in 2008.
The mayor's battle with cancer poses no near-term threat to those efforts, and those who led similar efforts during another trying period in the city's recent history -- the illness and death of former Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri in 1988 -- argue that others will step up if Mr. O'Connor weakens, in the same way that top Caliguiri aide David Matter did as the ailing Mr. Caliguiri refused to let a rare protein disorder interfere with his leadership in office.
"People rally on situations like this," said Jay Aldridge, who was the region's top business recruiter in the late 1980s.
Added Bob Pease, who was director of the storied, public policy-oriented Allegheny Conference in the 1980s: "I think right now things will keep on moving because too many people are involved in pushing to make [the city] move.
"We have an opportunity right now with the business community and the educational community and the political community really to make hay while the sun shines. It is kind of like the stars are all shining in the right place. ... Nothing is going to stop while we are waiting for Bob to get his treatments."
Michael Langley, holder of the job Mr. Pease had in the 1980s, agrees with his predecessor, saying, "I don't think there is a confidence issue here. [The] level of energy that exists in the region right now ... will continue."
How Mr. O'Connor fares under treatment, though, could change the assessment of his effectiveness -- and any fallout.
If Mr. O'Connor "remains ill so long that his illness interferes with new initiatives yet to be launched, then that has some effect and we will have to wait and see what happens there," said Cliff Shannon, president of SMC Business Councils and a former chief of staff to the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz.
The long illness of Mr. Caliguiri is part of a dark period in Pittsburgh's recent history. The Democrat was responsible for kicking off "Renaissance II" -- a spate of development building on the legacy of the city-wide improvement projects started after World War II -- but he suffered under the weight of a slow national economy and the closing of numerous manufacturing plants through the late 1970s and 1980s.
Like Mr. O'Connor, Mr. Caliguiri was lauded for his energy, his love for the city and his ability to convene disparate interests. His death "absolutely slowed momentum in the city [and] made it harder for the city government and city leaders to get things done for some years," said Mr. Shannon.
After Mr. O'Connor's diagnosis this week, Mr. King of the Heinz Endowments said several people mentioned "the sense of community momentum lost when [Mayor Caliguiri] was lost."
Mr. King, former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, also remembers a palpable change in momentum statewide when Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey was diagnosed with amyloidosis -- the same condition that killed Mr. Caliguiri. Mr. Casey had a heart and liver transplant in 1993, and "I think that slowed things down in Harrisburg," Mr. King said. Mr. Casey left office in 1995.
As for Mr. O'Connor, "I do hope so much he comes back," Mr. King said. PNC's Mr. Rohr "likes to point out frequently we don't have the level of faith and belief in our community that we ought to have. That is what I think Bob has helped with tremendously."
Those most anxious to get Mr. O'Connor back are perhaps the neighborhood development advocates who are benefiting from the mayor's attention to a block-by-block clean-up campaign and his willingness to invite input from more grassroots groups.
Mark Fatla of the Northside Leadership Conference argues that Mr. O'Connor "has brought a brightening of the mood," and "when he comes to neighborhoods, he talks about what's positive."
Steve Shivak of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, which represents a broad coalition of neighborhood groups, called the mayor's style "refreshing and welcome. He's saying, 'We're going to move the city forward, and you guys have to figure out how to work and play together so we all win.' "
First Published July 13, 2006 12:00 am