Michael Langley

The mythology goes something like this: In the 1940s, Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence and financier Richard King Mellon decided that they were going to change the direction of the Pittsburgh region, and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development was born on a handshake.

As with most myths, there’s a bit of truth to the story. Indeed, the powerful political boss and a scion of Pittsburgh business were at the head of the parade when it came to leading Pittsburgh toward a post-industrial future, but no two individuals could have harnessed the economic might of the region had it not been for the mass of business leaders willing to take up the task.

Still, the perception of the Allegheny Conference persists as a gang of big corporation executives who gather at the Duquesne Club to execute a game plan that benefits them first.

Those big-company leaders continue to play a role in the organization and are welcome at the table, says Michael Langley, who took over as the Allegheny Conference’s CEO last November. But he hastens to add that the board leadership has broadened to include community leaders, academics and small-business people. Leveraging that diversity with the Allegheny Conference’s experience, says Langley, makes it an even more effective agent for economic progress in the region.

“The disadvantage of being old is that people think of your history and not of your future, and I think we need to communicate even more aggressively on where we’re going, not where we’ve been,” Langley says.

Langley shared with Smart Business the virtues of experience, his view of Pittsburgh’s strengths and weaknesses, and where he thinks the region is headed.

What are the disadvantages of being the oldest economic development agency in the region, and what are the advantages?

I’ll turn the question around and say what the advantages are first. I think that, truly, experience is a very important thing. The Allegheny Conference, a 60-year-old organization … was unique and innovative in its formation, and as we’ve evolved it, it’s unique and innovative in its current state.

The reason I say that is the Allegheny Conference today is not your grandfather’s Allegheny Conference. Just in the last year, and certainly since I came on board as CEO, we’ve continued to transform the fabric of this organization and its focus and meaning for the community. We are now the umbrella private sector leadership organization for Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The aggregation of our three affiliated organizations, the Pennsylvania Economy League, the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, under essentially the ownership of the conference, has created a very unique and cutting-edge structure for action which other regions of this country would love to replicate, and many are looking at us as a best practice. So the advantage of getting older is that the experience has given us a good perspective and really a pride of ownership, a pride that, from its inception, was able to make a difference in this community.

I think the disadvantage is that we … have to get over the perceptions of the past. I think a lot of people don’t understand where we’ve moved the organization, where we’ve moved the regional aspect of this organization.

A lot of people that don’t know, who aren’t involved, may say the Allegheny Conference, that’s that same old Downtown group of large corporate leaders that sit in the Duquesne Club and think up ways to make it hard on everybody else.

What are the distinct advantages that the Western Pennsylvania region enjoys over most others?

In an economic development framework, there are common denominators that I think we need to focus on; cost, quality of life, work force and business infrastructure are the common denominators of an economy as it relates to economic growth and development. So I think if you want to compare Southwestern Pennsylvania to any other region in terms of our strengths and weaknesses, our challenges, opportunities, that’s one context, at least from an economic development standpoint, to compare us.

What are the cost issues?

Certainly cost of living is one you would say is potentially a relative advantage if you look at certain measures, but when you look at the structure, it’s not necessarily that way. We could rationalize either residential tax burden or corporate tax burden, we could rationalize that against the rest of the country and say we’re not as high as this place, but all in all, that is such a fundamental competitive advantage that it’s not good enough to be middle of the pack or even accept that being in the top half of the U.S. in terms of regions from a cost and tax structure standpoint is acceptable.

If we’re not in the top quartile, the top 10, maybe, we can be an excellent region and move our economy forward faster than others. If we only move as fast as everybody else, we’re not going to achieve any more success.

Quality of life is a wonderful asset of Southwestern Pennsylvania and, I think, again, because cost and quality of life, work force and business infrastructure are the common denominators. Work force issues, again that one, like the cost issue, is a little bit of a mixed bag.

We have a tremendous work ethic; we have people who are not afraid to work. At the same time, we have to make sure that our educational system, from kindergarten through graduate school, is delivering the skill sets and the quality of education to continue to produce the work force for the future.

In terms of higher education, again, a huge blessing, absolutely advantaged relative to the rest of the world. With two research universities here, we’re tremendously advantaged. That is a fundamental key to our success. In terms of performance of (the rest of) our education system, it’s not that we’re worst in the country by far, but unless we’re the best, we can’t be competitive.

Finally, the infrastructure, the business infrastructure, is a very challenging aspect of Western Pennsylvania. With that, of course, is the physical infrastructure, roads, bridges, because we’re an older state, an older community compared to more temperate climates, where the elements may not be as hard on infrastructure as they are here and because of our topography on top of that.

We have a lot of bridges, we have a lot of overpasses, we have a lot of infrastructure to deal with.

How is the economic development landscape in Pittsburgh different from that of other regions?

I think the confluence of industry is happening here and is positioning us for excellence in the 20th century and beyond, specifically, the information technology excellence that we have, the life sciences excellence that we have. But thirdly and very importantly … is advanced manufacturing and advanced materials.

The job of business leaders and citizens here is to understand it, build awareness of that with our community, celebrate it and then execute on it. How to reach: Allegheny Conference on Community Development, www.accdpel.org