Pittsburgh’s Future Keystones: East-West Connections for the New and the Native
Donald Bonk interviews Dennis Davin, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, as part of the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. This interview was conducted before COVID-19. The transcript is abridged and edited for clarity.here. View Dennis Davin’s profile here.
“The issue and moonshot for me is to get Pittsburgh much better connected to the East Coast and much better connected to the West.” —Dennis Davin, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development
Donald Bonk: Good afternoon and welcome, Dennis. Thanks for making time on your busy schedule. We really wanted to get your thoughts and ideas, but before we dive into that: For those who don’t know you as well, can you give us your background?
Dennis Davin: Sure. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, actually born in the South Side. Worked in Pittsburgh just about my whole life. Worked for the Urban Redevelopment Authority for about 16 years in a variety of different positions. The last number of years was as director of housing, and then I went on to become director of economic development for Allegheny County working with Dan Onorato, who was Allegheny County executive, and then Rich Fitzgerald.
Then, I was asked by the Governor to take on the role of secretary of community and economic development for the Commonwealth when Governor Wolf was elected and started his first term in 2015.
Bonk: You’ve got about five years in this very important job. That’s great. So you are now positioned to answer what we think are really important questions about the future of the region. Our big question is what would make Pittsburgh the best city in the world, or one of the best cities in the world, and what’s your ideal version of Pittsburgh?
Davin: First of all—I’m a little biased, I guess—I believe the Pittsburgh is probably one of the best cities in the world. I’ve been around the country and then around the world. Pittsburgh is as every bit as good as any place that I’ve ever seen.
There are a lot of things that can be done. One of the things that that I see is that Pittsburgh’s beauty has really blossomed, just in the past 20 years or so. People didn’t really realize that. We always talk to each other about the fact that you just had to get people to Pittsburgh to really understand the beauty of Pittsburgh and how great a place that Pittsburgh was. Pittsburgh has the beauty part of it down with the three rivers, with the trails, with everything that’s going on right now.
What Pittsburgh needs to do to take the next step is to do as much as it can to attract young people, attract immigrants, attract people to this city.
We have a lot of opportunities here. There’s every reason why Pittsburgh should be able to attract every business that is out there because of the amount of talent that Pittsburgh produces right now with its great universities, and the amount of talent that we can attract because of the beauty of the city.
Pittsburgh needs to continue to promote itself that way and market itself not as a small postindustrial Rust Belt city, but as a beautiful metropolitan city that has an incredible amount of cultural activities. Nightlife. It’s a foodie city. Beautiful outdoor amenities for people to take advantage of. Pittsburgh needs to continue to do that, and do what it can to attract more people here.
Bonk: The second question that we like to focus on is the one big moonshot idea. The idea is not only just a moonshot, but it changes the narrative of the city. So, the city has a certain narrative: We all understand the backstory and the history of Pittsburgh and steel, and then technology and ED’s (education) and meds (medicine) and all those transformations. Now, we’re in a position where we want to talk to thought leaders like you. What is your big idea to change that story for Pittsburgh?
Davin: I don’t know if it’s my big idea, but I think a moonshot for Pittsburgh revolves around transportation and moving people in and out of the city of Pittsburgh. And I’ll give you a for instance. When Amazon was looking for their particular locations and Pittsburgh was nominated as one of the top 20, Philadelphia was also on that list. We worked really hard to get both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on that list.
I use Amazon because it’s an example that a lot of people know about, but this is true for a number of other organizations and companies that are looking at Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania as a location. The transportation and the ability to get people in and out of the city and around the city, is absolutely critical. It’s probably one of the top three things that companies look at when they’re coming here. The issue and moonshot for me is to get Pittsburgh much better connected to the East Coast and much better connected to the West.
Bonk: To Chicago, to Detroit…to…
Davin: Exactly. If you think about it from Pennsylvania’s standpoint, it really makes sense because Pennsylvania has tremendous connectivity from Harrisburg to Philadelphia.
Bonk: 14 trains a day.
Davin: That’s exactly right. That connectivity then translates into New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. If we could make the connection between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh that much more effective, then we really have something that unlocks opportunities for Philadelphia to get to Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia to get to Pittsburgh to Chicago, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.
Bonk: So you knit the two big metro areas together.
Davin: That’s it. It really opens them up because it gives Philadelphia better connections, but it puts Pittsburgh in the center of all this connectivity.
So for me, if we had an opportunity for a moonshot, it would be to get better high-speed connections between Pittsburgh and the east and the west.
Bonk: Is that air, rail, bus? Do you have any sense of what it is?
Davin: I think the Pittsburgh Airport Authority and Christina Cassotis as the new CEO have done a tremendous job of getting us air service. I believe that air service is one part of it, but I also believe that we need either rail or some other type of high-speed service that can make those connects, whatever works.
Davin: Whatever works. The great thing is that technology is going at a much faster speed than it’s ever gone in history.
So Hyperloop is not the crazy idea that we may have thought it would have been five or ten or twenty years ago, but even high-speed rail could make some sense. Understanding what the issues are, understanding that we have a geography that really doesn’t set itself up for that, with the mountain range that goes right through the center of state.
Bonk: We’ve had challenges before. In 1939, I think, we did the PA Turnpike. In 1854, we did the rail connection. Now, we need a 21st century version of those two.
Davin: Where the state government could come into play is the fact that we own rights of way all throughout the state of Pennsylvania.
If we could get the technology right to be able to utilize them the right way, to get that high-speed service between Pittsburgh to the east, Philadelphia, and then points north and south from there, and then Pittsburgh to the west and Chicago…
Bonk: I could see the transformation that might bring about, on a personal level, as a community and on a regional level, that would unlock so much opportunity.
Bonk: Thanks for that moonshot. That’s really, really helpful.
Davin: We’ll get working on that right away.
Bonk: Well, you have to believe it, before you can do it right, before you can achieve it.
Davin: You have to.
Bonk: So, we’re talking about it. We’re putting this out in the ether. One of the thoughts was to get leaders like you to think imaginatively and not with constraints, with a blank sheet of paper, and then see if we could bring it to fruition in some fashion.
Now we’re going to look down in a tighter timeframe and boundary. We’re looking at the years 1990 and 2050. They are equidistant: 30 years. I’m old enough to remember 1990 pretty well. The Pirates played the Cincinnati in the playoffs. We didn’t get to the World Series, but it was a good year for the Pirates.
2050 is 30 years in the future. Same distance. If you could, give some more down-to-earth, practical ideas. We’ve done the moonshot. We’ve done the ideal city. Now we’re bringing it down to more practical thoughts. Maybe three ideas or so to match the next three decades to come.
Davin: A couple things come to mind. One is, again, the connections within the city and the region. More local connections and better local connections.
I have three kids, and all three of them have cars, and all three of them would rather not have cars. They would rather be able to take public transportation. Sometimes they do. But to look at other ways of connecting Pittsburgh in a much more easy, feasible way.
Make sure that those connections not only get you to the places that are doing great like Lawrenceville, the North Shore and Oakland, but also the places that really need the connections to it. To be able have people who don’t have the opportunities, get them through a good quality transportation system. Unlock economic, cultural and social opportunities; give them the opportunities. That’s one thing.
The second thing is I’m a big believer in education, starting at the lowest levels all the way up to the highest levels. We as a city and as a state need to do everything we can to make sure that we have a properly trained workforce—that we have good quality education for all of our residents here in Pittsburgh. Again, not only to unlock opportunities for people who may not have had opportunities previously, but also to make sure that we’re preparing our young people for the jobs of tomorrow. I know it’s only 30 years away, the jobs that we have today may be drastically different than what we’re going to see.
Bonk: So flexibility, adaptability, and people reaching their full potential.
Davin: Absolutely, and making sure that that we in government provide the right educational opportunities to those who need them and then encourage the private institutions to provide the right type of educational opportunities to those folks.
Those were two of the big ones. The other one I’ll just throw out there, too. Pittsburgh is such a welcoming community compared to a lot of other places that I’ve seen around the country. But I think that we sometimes don’t do a good enough job of really promoting that.
Bonk: The warmth, the hospitality of Pittsburghers…
Davin: Sometimes we talk about this; we’re our own worst enemies. We don’t tout all our successes. We don’t brag about it. We have to brag about it.
We have to tell people. We have to continue to promote the fact that Pittsburgh is a great place to be, a great place to settle down if you have a family. But it’s also a great place if you’re a young person to get a good quality job and have an incredible opportunity to do things outside of work. Work-life balance right now is the biggest thing.
When we were a lot younger, we pretty much did whatever the boss told us to do and we liked it. We had to. It’s a little different these days.
Bonk: Recreation, food, and entertainment are a priority.
Davin: That’s exactly right. Younger people think a little bit differently these days. Again, they’re incredible workers. They do a great job, but they also want to have a good work-life balance.
We really take to heart in my department at the state Department of Community and Economic Development that we need to make places interesting places to be. People laughed at the fact that you have to have a craft brew pub in order to be an “it” place. But you have to. You have to have the wineries and the distilleries. But you also have to have good outdoor activities. You have to have these trails…
Bonk: Hiking, biking.
Davin: Yes. I always give kudos to former Pittsburgh Mayor Murphy when we worked for him, because that was one of the first things that he really wanted to do. He wanted to develop the trail system and take advantage of this incredible beauty of our city.
Bonk: Natural assets of the city.
Davin: It’s really helped us along.
That’s the third thing: Do what we can do to attract people here, talk about how great it is to be here, but do a better job of promoting people coming into the city of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh region.
Bonk: That’s really helpful. These are important ideas for the community to hear about. Like I said, you have a long and illustrious history working in so many different, highly-functional, highly-important economic development related jobs and programs. To hear you talk about these things, we wanted to change the conversation in Pittsburgh, and I think your discussion today will definitely help move us down the field to realizing Pittsburgh’s true potential. Thank you for your time.