Friday, November 11, 2005

Allegheny Conference on Community Development Review

Let's get down to it:

Generally, when Murray Gerber, President and CEO of Equitable Resources, has to ask you to stand up and stretch before his speech, the conference has gone on too long. Also the people in the back rows and the upper balconies somehow managed to find their way into the reception at least an hour before those on the ground floor... but we'll get to that in a minute.

As I mentioned before, and true to my expectations, The Bassmaster Classic was a highlighted feature of the Conference presentation; the word "Bassmaster" was mentioned 8 times during the 2 hour and 6 minute presentation. This did not include the near half-dozen times they showed the word "Bassmaster" on the screen. The only consolation was that I came closest in the pool: I bet that they would mention "Bassmaster" 10 times.

Anyway, here are the Conference's 2005 Accomplishments:
* Aversion of the City of Pittsburgh's Financial Crisis
* Row Office Reform
* Elimination of the State's Capital Stock & Transfer Taxes
* The Sun Coming up in the East and Setting in the West

Well, OK, not the last one.... but the way that they were talking, you'd think that it would be the next logical accomplishment.

Of course, the "Alanis Morrisette Memorial Award for Irony" went to the call for the Conference to "embrace change". Of course, in the next breath they exhorted the media, rather than being negative, "to be part of the solution." Can't imagine what that might have been in reference to.

Big focus this year is on Cluster Development Strategies, namely Advanced Materials, Information Technologies, and Bioscience. The Advanced Optics Cluster in Armstrong County got a big video shout out, as did the creepy "Quasi," an entertainment robot out to find Sarah Connor.

The strategy is to develop the capabilities of Oakland to capture this cluster development through:
* The Schenley Plaza expansion
* The Improvement of Transit
* Connecting Oakland to the Second Avenue Development Sites

Oh, yeah, and tech-transfer and public sector support.

For some reason, they showed slides of their vacation to Boston. I think they went on a 54 hr. benchmarking binge. Turns out that since 1998, Boston's cohort of 20-24 yr. olds only grew 4% as compared to Pittsburgh's 12%. More on that later.

Of course, the big thing that everyone was talking about before the meeting was the 250 Anniversary "Rebranding"... which wasn't so much of a "Rebranding" as it was a deadline. By 2008 The Conference will:
* Change Government in Southwestern PA
* Make Taxes More Competitive
* Improve Infrastructure
* Improve the Workforce
* Achieve Growth in Strategic Sectors
* Solve Fermat's Last Theorem
* Change Water into Wine
* Become Love

But back to workforce development, which is only slightly less exciting than that Wine thing.

Turns out that the Children are Our Future; risky investment there. And though it has been rarely asked, "Is our children learning?" The Conference has asked, and the answer is, "No, they isn't."

The Conference has been on this kick for the last few years to make every fifth grade in the region proficient in reading and math. Turns out that we've had modest improvement in reading, which is tracking well against the trendline, although math is lagging behind.

So they bring out the Superintendent from South Fayette who's had success in improving her district. Her plan:
* High expectations (everyone can succeed);
* Create a culture of learning, driven by data;
* Create a Common vision for Board & Staff and reinforce it with shared accountability.

I distinctly heard a "BULLSHIT!" coming from behind me when she got to point 1.

Taxes and government need to be reformed. Their studies indicate that the SWPA region ranks high in municipal "stress," i.e., too many complicated layers of government in too small of an area. Nothing was said about "Bureaucrat Stress"... although judging by the amount of alcohol served at the reception, I think they found a way to relieve it.

Oh, yeah, and the Corporate Net Income Tax is high. That's bad, apparently.

But back to Pittsburgh 250... no, let's not.

But, and this is at about the 1 hour and 45 minute mark, incoming Chair James E. Rohr had a few (15) minutes to talk about his "vision" for the region. Simply stated, his first point was this: since 1983 we've come a long way. His examples were the transformation of the Cultural District, the North Shore, the South Side, and Homestead... all of which were decimated after the final fall of Steel in 1983. His statistics to prove that we are improving: Since 1983, job growth is up (See! There ARE jobs). Since 1998, the 20-24 year old cohort has increased 12% (See! Young people ARE coming here). Secondary schools are performing well (See! The Schools aren't completely F'd up!).

His plan, and he has consultants for this, is to
(1) Reform Taxes and Government
(2) Improve Transportation (including the Mon-Fayette and increasing access from the Airport to Oakland & Downtown)
(3) Sell the Region (We're apparently too negative about ourselves)

OK, Jimmy... you just spent 30 minutes telling us that the schools are underperforming, and now you're telling us they're fine...

You spent the last two years telling us that Young People have been leaving the city, and now you say that they're staying in droves...

(And, as a side point, you used a stupid statistic: 20-24 yr olds are a ridiculous example; how are we doing with people that, you know, have jobs? Say, 25-35 year olds?)

You constantly say "we need more jobs" and then say, "hey, job growth has been good for the last 20 years"...

You say, there needs to be a transit link from Oakland to the Airport... but you've obviously never ridden the 28X bus. $2 to the airport... perhaps your staff is familiar with that route?

You say, we need the Mon-Fayette Expressway to create jobs in the Mon Valley, but then say that all those jobs disappeared 20 years ago...

You talk about Direct and Indirect Influence of the Conference... but you don't ever explain what that means...

And frankly, you seem to take a lot of credit for stuff you may, or may not, have done.

This is what I came away with from the meeting: The Conference needs to re-image itself as a touch-stone for businesses. Screw all this Community Development bullshit; come to terms with the fact that The Conference is in it for the Benjamins.

This is not a bad thing: the region needs jobs, it needs businesses, it even needs people to organize this kind of stuff... just don't pretend that you are the be all and end all of growth and development in the region. Focus, instead, on what seems to be your core competencies: lobbying, data collection, and booze.

So add me to the negative voices.


The Conference reception is, by far, one of the great ugly people conventions in Pittsburgh. It's a chance for Everyone and Anyone to forget they are No One, and pretend to be Someone. And there are a lot of ugly people. Including Larry Dunn.

And, because all the people in the peanut gallery decided to sneak out at about 1 hr 12 min into the presentation, the hors d'oeuvres were picked clean.

It took a lot of drinking to undo the evening's damage to my psyche, but I hope to go next year as well.

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