Downtown Pittsburgh’s Fairmont Hotel was the setting for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development’s annual meeting on Thursday, Nov. 8 where a capacity crowd of nearly 600 civic, business and political leaders gathered to hear the organization’s annual progress report.

Allegheny Conference leaders, including Conference Chair Charles Bunch (chairman & CEO, PPG Industries, Inc.) and Conference Vice Chairs David Malone (president and CEO, Gateway Financial Group) and Laura Ellsworth (partner-in-charge, Jones Day Pittsburgh) reported on efforts over the past year to grow the economy and improve the quality of life in the Pittsburgh region. This is the first year of the Conference’s new 2012 – 14 agenda, which guides the organization’s work. It’s organized into three strategic priorities – Enhance Opportunity, Strengthen Communitiesand Energize Tomorrow’s Economy –  under the umbrella of “Sustainable Prosperity.” Here are highlights of the progress reported on at the meeting.

CEO Dennis Yablonksy speaks at the Allegheny Conference’s Annual Meeting on Nov. 8, 2012

Enhancing Opportunity – building on our strengths to connect businesses and individuals to opportunity

The pipeline of the Conference’s marketing affiliate, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, typically has about 90 projects in it at any given time. Today that number is 150 – indicating significant interest in the region. Economic development deals such as the expansion of Aquion Energy with a manufacturing facility for environmentally friendly aqueous hybrid ion batteries in the former Sony plant in Westmoreland County and the building of a new facility for Germany-based industrial door manufacturer HormannFlexon in Washington County underpin the region’s strength in manufacturing, as well as energy.

The Conference has launched a new initiative to accelerate the growth of African American-owned businesses in the region. Working with 113 Industries, we’re using an “open innovation” approach that encourages the adoption of best practices and new ideas. We’re beginning by identifying models across the U.S. that have been shown to enhance entrepreneurial opportunity for minority-owned businesses.

Strengthening Communities – removing barriers that prevent communities from realizing their potential

Fragmentation in Pennsylvania is a problem because  it undermines municipal health. One area where the problem is paramount is pensions. The Conference, working in concert with the statewide Coalition for Sustainable Communities, continues to pursue reform of binding arbitration and municipal pension reform to strengthen the fiscal health of communities.

Energizing Tomorrow’s Economy – seeking competitive tax and regulatory policies and reinforcing our region’s leadership as the new “Center of American Energy”

The Conference and its affiliate, the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, has made some progress in improving business climate. In the past year, the unemployment compensation formula has been reformed, resulting in reduced costs to employers. There has been progress on lawsuit abuse reform. The overall business tax burden has eased with the continued phase-out of the Capital Stock and Franchise tax and improvements to the structure of the Corporate Net Income tax. To increase public awareness of our region’s energy opportunity, the Conference launched the Energy to the Power of Pittsburgh regional public awareness campaign to spread the word about energy-related job opportunities in the 32-county greater Pittsburgh region – now and into the foreseeable future.

We’ve made progress on the workforce front, with the convening, development and launch of the multi-state ShaleNET and now ShaleNET U.S., a comprehensive recruitment, training and placement program for high-demand jobs in the natural gas industry.

(L-R) Tom Grealish (Henderson Brothers), Jack Ouelette (American Textile Company), Laura Ellsworth (Jones Day) and Dan Grealish (Henderson Brothers)

While our region has made significant progress on a number of fronts, Conference Chair Charles Bunch identified five challenges as being top priorities in 2013. These include:

Skills Gap

A skills gap is emerging in our region as thousands of jobs are going unfilled across the 10 counties. A recent report by the Allegheny Conference and Energy Alliance of Greater Pittsburgh highlights 14 high-demand, hard-to-fill occupations that exist today in our energy sector.  If current trends continue, tens of thousands more may become available within the next decade. Industry must create awareness of this opportunity and partner with schools engaged in workforce development.

Transit and Transportation Funding Crisis

There is a critical need for transit solutions that work. We must keep in mind that this year’s successful negotiation of a funding package to stop the proposed Port Authority service cuts is just a one-year fix. The solution, the Conference believes, is in the recommendations of Governor Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission for raising $2.5 billion annually to address transportation infrastructure needs (roads, bridges, rail and ports) and stabilize transit.

Site Shortage

We’ve been successful in creating thousands of acres of “shovel-ready sites” for investment and development. But now, our regional inventory of these sites is running low; many are fully occupied. Without a shovel-ready inventory, employers will set up shop elsewhere. Given the special challenges of our terrain and the additional expense of replacing aging infrastructure, this is an issue the public sector must address.

Capital Squeeze

To turn innovative ideas into new companies, our region relies on the ready availability of venture capital, which of late has been in increasingly short supply, especially  homegrown venture capital funds that are more likely to keep start-ups in our region as they grow. It is critically important to identify new sources of such venture funds.

Pension and Binding Arbitration Concerns

Pennsylvania is home to one quarter of all municipal pension plans in the nation, many of which are chronically underfunded. Without pension and binding arbitration reform, local governments will continue to reduce services and raise taxes as they struggle to meet the basic needs of their residents and business.

Want to know more?
The Allegheny Conference in partnership with the Pittsburgh Business Times produced a 12-page insert, which highlights these regional priorities and the progress made by the Conference over the past year. The insert ran in the Nov. 9 edition of the paper. If you missed it, check it out below.

2012 Imagine Insert

Phil Cynar
Buy Pittsburgh First Founder Chantel Goldstrohm

Buying local produce is in. Who doesn’t like helping the farmer in the dell, and putting fresher fruits and vegetables touched by fewer chemicals into our bodies just feels right. But when businesses buy local, the benefits increase exponentially. By procuring supplies and services locally, smaller businesses can grow, hire and retain employees and contribute to the local tax base. This is especially helpful for women and minority-owned businesses, which sometimes struggle to make those B2B connections.

And buying local is good for our communities. When businesses buy local, 20 percent more of what they spend stays in the area – accelerating economic activity even more and becoming a cash source for the assets we prize:  parks, schools, roads and more.

It’s now easier than you might think to buy local. Today, the Pittsburgh Impact initiative, a program of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, and the Bridgeville-based company Buy Pittsburgh First, announced a partnership to streamline the process via This one-stop website identifies regional suppliers for purchasing agents at companies large and small and gives premium listings to Pittsburgh Impact companies and women- and minority-owned businesses in southwestern Pennsylvania on Source Engine, the site’s supplier search engine. The Pittsburgh Impact initiative is focused on helping regional companies identified as “high growth” continue on a growth trajectory – making the partnership with Buy Pittsburgh First a natural fit.

The next time your business is ready to make a purchase, check to see if there’s a vendor in the community. Chances are high there is, and keep in mind that local products and services often exceed those of national suppliers in quality. That’s not just “in,” it’s a win.

You can learn more about this effort directly from Buy Pittsburgh First Founder Chantel Goldstrohm in the video below.

Suzi Pegg
Stained Glass in Barcelona

Barcelona is simply beautiful, and the culture and the arts are deep-seated in this seaside city. Amazing architecture abounds, as does some of the most awe-inspiring stained glass I have ever seen. The latter is somewhat obscured by vast amount of dominating architecture all around, but when you happen upon it, the stained glass takes your breath away.

I’m thinking that in some ways, Barcelona’s stained glass might be a metaphor for the arts and culture – a real, but sometimes hidden, gem tucked away amidst the bricks, mortar, steel and concrete of the infrastructure of a metropolis – the “hardware” that literally gives a city or region its shape and form. The “hardware” is critical, but by itself – devoid of the stained glass, the arts and culture and the similar wonders that soften edges and add sparkle – a city or region can come up short on personality. I think that both Barcelona and Pittsburgh recognize the need to balance both in order to achieve a quality of place that attracts people and business investment. Thousands of miles apart, we might be more like-minded than we realize.

Suzi Pegg and Mikel Burazko, at “their” table, Hotel de las Artes, Barcelona

My home-away-from-home is the Hotel de las Artes, one of Barcelona’s twin tallest buildings at 505 feet. It ties for this rank with Torre Mapfre, a neighboring skyrise. Hotel de las Artes was designed by the famous architects Bruce Graham and Frank O. Gehry, and was completed in 1994, although its dramatic design under construction was made famous by the 1992 Summer Olympics held in Barcelona. In this tallest of buildings, Mikel Burazko, Pennsylvania’s man in Spain and Portugal and one of my key partners, often meet to plan our lofty strategies for marketing the our home state. We’ve gathered here so often that the staff has actually started to reserve us our “usual” table.

Pittsburgh and Barcelona are similar with regard to economic sectors and strengths such as information and communications technology, cyber security, energy, life sciences and manufacturing. Our similarities have made it easier for us to hold productive meetings with several motivated agencies to discuss the bilateral opportunities between our regions, with the terms “innovation” and “collaboration” common to our business vocabularies. I am feeling positive that that there are some key opportunities here, and I’ll look forward to reporting more as these develop.

To get from meeting to meeting, I sometimes take a cab. On a recent ride, my driver was an overly enthusiastic man who had just returned from a trip to the UK where, among other things, he had gone to learn English. He seemed delighted to practice his English with me and was thrilled to share all he loved about my native England – especially football matches and pubs. In fact, he was so thrilled that he found it impossible to not show me his many travel photos – while driving the cab! Needless to say, it was quite a ride, and I felt like I spent more time watching the road for him rather than admiring his photos.

The Pittsburgh Symphony concert was held in the historic and sumptuous Palau de la Musica. The hall – the “Palace of Catalan Music” – was designed in the modernista style by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and was constructed between 1905 and 1908. Not unlike Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, it was built with important financial contributions from by Barcelona’s wealthy industrialists. The PSO musician played Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 – the Resurrection Symphony – exquisitely. It was a moving performance and yet another testimonial to the quality associated with our Pittsburgh region and embodied in the PSO. Our Spanish business guests were taken aback by how exceptional the orchestra is.

On that high note, we are poised to continue a conversation about how Pittsburgh and Barcelona – places that prize quality and embrace innovation and collaboration – can perhaps develop mutually beneficial business partnerships. To that, I exclaim bravo !

Mallory and Albert in the Yucatan, autumn 2012.

If you are — like me — geographically unaware, you may not realize that the popular vacation getaway Cancun is located in the heart what used to be entirely populated by Mayans. I recently spent my honeymoon there, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. With a rare opportunity to visit ancient ruins – amid exhausting days of drinking Negra Modelo on the beach – Mallory (the new Mrs./Dr. C) and I decided to check out Coba, one of the four major cities (and the capital) of the Mayan civilization.

We rode bikes through what is left of this city (once home to more than 55,000 people) to Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid on the peninsula, standing about 50 yards high. One of the unique aspects of this ruin is that visitors are allowed to climb it. Feeling feisty, Mallory and I decided to scale the not-quite-built-to-code stairway to the top. As we embarked, we struck up a conversation with a young woman who was also making the climb. The following conversation ensued:

Young Woman: Where are you from?

Us: Pittsburgh.

YW: Pittsburgh?! I was just in Pittsburgh for One Young World!

Us: Really? How long were you there? What did you see? (Imagine these with a few heavy breaths taken given the height.)

YW: Only four days, but it was beautiful. Everyone was so friendly. And have you ever been to The Mattress Factory?

Us: (Giggling) Yes, we definitely have. (Our wedding reception was at the Mattress Factory.)

The woman turned out to be from Paris and was effusive in her praise of our city. Mallory and I were just floored that — while scaling a pre-Columbian ruin nearly 1,500 miles from home — we met someone from perhaps the world’s most glamorous capital waxing eloquent about Pittsburgh. I think it’s a small but powerful illustration of how events like OYW offer unique opportunities to turn visitors into heartfelt ambassadors for the Pittsburgh region.

Sphere tree in Market Square’s Season of Lights, Downtown Pittsburgh Photo by Kristen Friess, Allegheny Conference

Pittsburgh officially begins the winter holiday season on Friday, Nov. 16 with Light Up Night, the 52nd annual celebration that fills downtown’s Golden Triangle with music, lights, Santa, ice skating and – starting Nov. 24– a European-style Christmas market in Market Square. (Full schedule and links for more information below.)

Things begin at noon as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl lights a towering Christmas tree at the City-County Building, while a crèche is dedicated at U.S. Steel Tower on Grant Street. At 5 p.m. live jazz music begins at an outdoor stage on EQT Plaza on Liberty Avenue near Seventh Streets, while rock-n-roll rules Market Square. In total six trees will be illuminated in downtown on the 16th, including the Highmark Unity Tree at the corner of Penn and Stanwix (still beloved to many as the Hornes Department Store tree), the ice-rinked ringed evergreen in PPG Plaza and – lit by Santa Claus himself — and the red-and-white LED-powered spherical tree in Market Square. Fireworks (of course) will end the evening with typical Pittsburgh pomp.

Market Square will be site of the Peoples Gas Holiday Market, featuring wooden Alpine chalet-style booths with artisans and merchants from around the world. Operating daily through Dec. 23, the market will share space with a Santa House, where children can explore and drop off their letters to Santa. Donations to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank can be dropped off at this location as well.

Event organizer the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership estimates last year’s event attracted more than 800,000 visitors and generated $21 million in economic impact.

Many of Pittsburgh’s traditional holiday offerings underscore the region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms. You can learn more by checking out the stories and videos from Five Golden Things, which highlighted such outings for the 2011-2012 season. We’ll be nodding to some new offerings over the next six weeks; be sure to sign up for automatic blog updates via RSS feed to your email account, follow us at or friend us at

2012 Light Up Night® Schedule of Events

Friday, November 16

12:00 pm   City-County Building Tree Lighting by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl

12:00 pm   U.S. Steel Tower Dedication of the Crèche

5:30 pm     Allegheny County Court House Lighting by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald

5:45 pm     One Oxford Centre Tree Lighting

6:00 pm     PPG Plaza American Cancer Society Tribute of Light Tree Lighting

6:15 pm     Macy’s Windows Unveiling

7:00 pm     Highmark Unity Tree Lighting with Rooftop Fireworks

7:30 pm     Market Square Season of Lights Lighting by Santa Claus

Live Music — Market Square: Northwest Savings Bank Stage

5:00 pm    Johnny Angel and The Halos

7:15 pm    Santa Claus officially lights Market Square Season of Lights

7:45 pm    Joe Grushecky and The Houserockers

Live Music — EQT Plaza: EQT Jazzmasters Stage

5:00 pm   Al Dowe & Etta Cox Trio

6:30 pm   Kenny Blake Quartet

8:00 pm   Roger Humphries Quintet

Live Music — Roberto Clemente (Sixth Street) Bridge Party (Sponsored by Trib Total Media)

5:00 pm    The Stickers

6:30 pm    The Billy Price Band

8:00 pm    No Bad JuJu

9:38 pm    Light Up Night® Fireworks, Warhol Bridge

Saturday , Nov. 17:

Noon to 2 pm  Third Annual Mascot Skate at The Rink at PPG Plaza

Live Music: Market Square: Northwest Savings Bank Stage

Noon         NoMad

1:45 pm    Vanessa Campagna

3:30 pm    The Granati Brothers

6:00 pm    Totally 80s

7:00 pm    BOB FM Holiday Wedding

7:30 pm    Jeff Jimerson and Airborne

Phil Cynar
CMU’S iGEM team: (from left) Peter Wei, Cheemeng Tan, Eric Pederson, Yang Choo and Natasa Miskov-Zivanov.

They came – a swarm of 275 brilliant, young, scientific minds – to Pittsburgh to compete in the Americas East Regional Jamboree for the International Genetically Engineering Machines (iGEM) competition. From institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Georgia Tech and Penn State, the competing teams of undergrads spent a weekend on Duquesne University’s campus in October. There they showcased to expert judges their efforts to engineer – at the molecular level – new synthetic organisms with the potential to impact medicine, energy and the environment for the better.

Among them was a team from Carnegie Mellon University. The CMU team was named one of four regional finalists from a field of 43 teams that competed in Pittsburgh, and now it’s bound for Boston to compete in the iGEM World Championship Jamboree at MIT, Nov. 2 – 5. Using a kit of interchangeable biological parts and a fundamental knowledge of synthetic biology, the CMU team created a biosensor capable of measuring cellular activities.

Humans have been manipulating Mother Nature to engineer more desirable results for centuries. Farmers and herders have long done selective breeding of plants and animals to produce more useful hybrids. And many will remember, from junior high science classes, Gregor Mendel, the monk who took heredity genetics to a new level, beginning with cross-pollination of pea pods back in the 1800s.

When it comes to synthetic biology and molecular engineering, what’s old is new again – especially in this “century of biology” when the discipline has more potential than perhaps ever before. Going far beyond better livestock or crops, synthetic biology today can help people lead healthier lives, improve the environment and humans’ impact on it. Synthetic biology is ripe to be shaped by today’s young masterminds, and competitions such as iGEM are giving it a kick start.

Learn more about synthetic biology and the big things happening at the most minute of levels at iGEM jamborees by watching the video below, featuring some key players who were excited about the Americas East Jamboree in Pittsburgh Oct. 13- 14. And then watch the Our Region’s Business segment featuring members of the CMU team who will be representing Pittsburgh at MIT this week.  You can also read my earlier post about iGEM here. interview at iGEM, Duquesne University Oct. 13-14

Our Region’s Business segment featuring members of the CMU team