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Growth alliance unites 10 counties

Both public officials and business people will seek state aid

Thursday, April 09, 1998

By Tom Barnes and Douglas Heuck, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Saying it's an unprecedented cooperative effort, public and private-sector officials are seeking more than $150 million in state aid for 53 major industrial and tourism projects in the 10-county Pittsburgh region.

"We either hang together or we hang separately," said Armstrong County Commissioner Jim Scahill, borrowing a Benjamin Franklin line to describe what he called a critical need for regional cooperation on job-creating development projects.

Scahill is co-chairman of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Growth Alliance, composed of private industry and public officials from Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The group met with Gov. Ridge in March to lobby for $157 million in state capital funds to help pay for the wide-ranging projects.

Ridge spokesman Tim Reeves said yesterday, "Each project will be judged on its own merits, but the governor is excited about the job-creation possibilities of these projects for southwestern Pennsylvania. He is actively engaged in this (issue)." Reeves said local officials could expect to hear news on at least some of the projects by July.

The political idea behind the Growth Alliance is to form solidarity among the 10-county area's 47 members of the state House and 13 state senators. Members of the delegation said this part of the state needed a block of votes to offset Philadelphia.

They pointed out that the state was providing $182 million to reopen a major shipyard in Philadelphia, and said it was only fair that the southwestern part of the state receive similar consideration.

Scahill said that even though the Regional Renaissance Initiative -- the proposed half-cent increase in a regional sales tax -- failed by a wide margin in a November referendum, discussion of the tax had fueled a multicounty debate over regional cooperation on economic development.

"We have matured. We had a historic debate last year," said Scahill, who was an opponent of the half-cent tax increase. "But people want economic development. Call it Plan E, for economic development. We have to retool after (the sharp decline in industries involving) steel and coal."

Local leaders realized recently that they had a problem when they compiled an inventory of all regional development proposals and found that the tally amounted to 531. Since then, members of the Growth Alliance have whittled the list to 53.

"We can't have everybody with a different list going to Harrisburg," Scahill said. "We have to have just one list. We all have to be playing off the same sheet of music."

He said the time was long past when individual counties could look only to their own welfare. Projects around Pittsburgh International Airport, for example, can benefit Lawrence and Washington counties as well as Allegheny.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is already far behind other regions when it comes to major factors for luring new companies, such as adequate transportation and modern, ready-to-occupy industrial space, said Harold Miller, Allegheny Conference on Community Development officer and Growth Alliance member.

What it does have, in far greater abundance, is old, vacant "brownfield" industrial sites without modern buildings or transportation connections, he said.

One major focus of the joint 10-county effort is to secure state, local and private funding to create large industrial parks with adequate roads, water and sewer lines, telecommunications and other necessities of modern business life.

"The state's business climate is better than it ever was," said William Dietrich, the second co-chairman of the Growth Alliance. Problems remain, he added, including the lack of industrial sites and inadequate infrastructure.

Relaxation of ozone controls is another of the group's goals, Dietrich said, citing the limiting effect that ozone nonattainment has had on business growth in the region. The problem, however, largely blows into this area from the west, and Greater Pittsburgh is unfairly penalized for a problem for which it is not completely responsible.

"We would exceed the ozone standard even if there were no human beings here," he said.

Regional leaders said the state contribution of $157 million was not a subsidy but an "investment" that would more than pay off in the near future as additional sales taxes and earned income taxes paid by people who get the new jobs increased.

The Alliance was unveiled last month during a Westmoreland County press conference, and leaders yesterday termed it "embryonic." They said that although the Alliance had gained the support of political leaders in the 10 counties, it would be premature to say it had the clout to force participation among disgruntled local leaders.

The effort was started by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. The Growth Alliance is not incorporated and has no full-time staff.

As to where the Growth Alliance fits into the puzzle of other local economic development agencies, it is subordinate to the agencies of The Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, described as the region's marketing arm, and subordinate to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission, which will have planning and transportation responsibilities. The niche of the Growth Alliance was described as one of political advocacy.

The Growth Alliance will have a "policy committee," which will include state legislators, a representative from Ridge's office, and representatives from member counties and Pittsburgh. Additionally, the policy committee will include three to five members from the Allegheny Conference, who will be identified by Conference chairman Richard Simmons.

Each of the 10 counties, along with the city of Pittsburgh, has at least one project on the list. Projects from Pittsburgh include redevelopment of the old LTV site on the South Side, reuse of the Nine Mile Run slag heap and creation of an African-American museum.

Besides Dietrich, Scahill and Miller, other leaders who announced the more specific plans in an editorial board meeting yesterday with the Post-Gazette were:

Robert Kochanowski, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission; Farley Toothman, chairman of the Greene County Board of Commissioners; Dennis Troy, deputy director of the Allegheny County department of economic development; and Tom Cox, executive secretary to Pittsburgh Mayor Murphy.

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