Pittsburgh Tomorrow Podcast: Lance Chimka, Allegheny County Economic Development Director
Donald Bonk interviews Lance Chimka, Allegheny County Economic Development Director, as part of the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. The transcript is abridged and edited for clarity. This episode was first published in February 2020.
“We need to repopulate. Part of that is density. And part of that is making sure that we have amenities that are attractive to people because increasingly people are choosing place over profession.” —Lance Chimka
Donald Bonk: Hello and welcome to Pittsburgh Tomorrow. I’m passionate about the future. Let’s take a journey there. You’ll hear from Pittsburgh’s most compelling leaders, thinkers, and creators, and through their imaginations and voices, we’ll explore the decades to come. I’m here with Lance Chimka, Allegheny County Economic Development Director. Great to have you here today. First, I’d like to get a little bit of background on you. And what do you do in the job of Allegheny County Economic Development Director?
Lance Chimka: I’m a born and raised Pittsburgher—grew up in the North Hills, live on the North Side. In the late ’90s, I went away to school to D.C., went overseas, came back to attend CMU, and kind of fell into the to the world of economic development and found it extremely rewarding and challenging. And I think when I came back, really rediscovered my hometown and fell back in love with it. So I’ve been working in the public sector ever since I came back. That was probably 2005, I’d say, so for about 15 years in the space. And so I’ve worked I started my career at the organization I now lead, which is very fun. And in the interim, I worked at the (PA) State Department of Community Economic Development.
There, I mostly worked on corporate expansion and industrial and commercial real estate development, which is a good segue way to what we do here. We’re a finance agency, so we’re not owning and operating affordable housing, for example, but we are funding for profit nonprofit developers who build that type of housing. So we are a little bit like a catalytic bank. And we make investments in affordable housing development, commercial industrial, real estate development, brownfield reclamation, parks and rec, human service delivery.
Bonk: You touch virtually every part of the infrastructure and baseline of the city.
Chimka: Yes. And we’re also the land use and transportation plan of record for Allegheny County. So we do a lot of different things. We’re most effective when we can make catalytic investments in one geography and in a number of those different investment areas. That’s where we add the most value. And really we’re making those investments with a kind of a two-fold mission. One is a macro vision. How do we make Allegheny County’s regional economy robust, diversified and growing so that everyone can tap into that? And one is kind of more on the micro level, and that’s our community development aspect of what we do. How do we really build healthy and vibrant communities that again meets the needs of our residents? So we kind of view all of our investments through those two lenses. They’re either doing one or both of those mission delivery activities. And it’s a lot of fun.
Bonk: It sounds like you’re the absolute right person to have this conversation with. So to dive right in. You have this broad mandate, as it were. What do you think would make Pittsburgh in particular, the best city in the world or one of the best cities in the world?
Chimka: Great question. When I think of great cities of the world. Right. New York, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney. Those cities share many commonalities. However, one common theme I think is a really robust public transit network. And I think the two questions in front of the Pittsburgh region right now is, one, do we want to be one of those great world-class cities? I personally think we should aspire to that. But I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. And then, two, if we do, in fact, want to be in the same conversation as Paris, New York and Tokyo, then we’re going to really have to make some hard decisions on how we develop our city and what we allow for, including a really robust public transit system. So I’m hopeful that we will we will get there. I think we have an excellent core right now. But we can certainly, certainly build it out further.
Bonk: I look at Pittsburgh’s future as well. And I think about the industries that are foundational to the 21st century. And they’re all here in Pittsburgh; our artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, big data, all those things that are going to drive the culture of tomorrow. And maybe that’s the predicate. We have a great city, but also a great city that’s the incubator, really, of those technologies of transformation.
Chimka: Absolutely. And I think when I look at I look at the macroeconomic state of the city, I think most people who have had a long history in the city, you can say unequivocally that we are better positioned now than we’ve ever been, maybe since the 1960s. So we diversified away from our over-reliance in primary metals manufacturing. And now we have I.T. and financial services, energy, health care, all of these foundational sectors of a diversified economy. What’s really exciting now is we have artificial intelligence that cuts across all of those and robotics that cuts across three of those, including advanced manufacturing, which we’re still very, very strong in. So, yes, I think we’re really well positioned for the next 50 years. And we’re a bit of a at a crossroads. And we’ve got to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. Right?
Bonk: Right, and that’s the purpose of this discussion. And these discussions across the city in Pittsburgh Tomorrow is to really get the best minds thinking in a very fertile way about these issues. The second question we like ask is about a moonshot and if you could do one enormously transformational thing in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, the region, what is Lance Chimka’s Moonshot?
Chimka: I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to serve all 131 municipalities that exist in Allegheny County, and they’re unique and beautiful places. But that framework for delivery of services is inherently inefficient. So I think massive municipal and school district consolidation would be my magic wand idea because I think it would position the region for growth in the future.
You know, you have 90 distinct neighborhoods with individual character and culture and personality and quirks. And that’s a beautiful thing that I would never, ever, ever want to lose. But there you have the efficient delivery of services that’s provided under one government. So I think the city is a perfect example of how you don’t have to lose the individual character.
What are we doing to try and advance government consolidation? I mean, I think that’s where ideas like voluntary dis-incorporation make a lot of sense; to give the residents an option, in the municipalities that are struggling to provide services. I think we need to allow for more options. Wearing my planner hat for a minute. I would say land use and zoning; giving the residents an option in zoning. A lot of our communities have antiquated standards for development. We’re at this point where we’re seeing increased growth, particularly in certain places in the city, and we should embrace density and allow competitive advantage.
We’re competing almost like a consumer product, right, and their consumer preferences are changing and making sure that we have the type of amenities and infrastructure to make us attractive to new residents.
Some of that is built infrastructure in the form of recreational activities and access to the city, which is a staggeringly beautiful place, I’m convinced. And making sure we’re making investments in those things to make sure our city is attractive to newcomers of all different races and ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. I think it is really important, particularly given our history of population loss and how we really need to turn that around in the coming decades to make up for that that lost generation.
We need to repopulate. Part of that is density. And part of that is making sure that we have amenities that are attractive to people because increasingly people are choosing place over profession.
Bonk: Is there anything, we haven’t touched on that you feel strongly about that the audience might want to hear about in terms of the words Pittsburgh and future, you know, when that put those two words together, what does Lance think about?
Chimka: I think it’s less of a thought and more of a feeling is that, it is being born and raised here is just a feeling of optimism that I maybe didn’t feel in the mid ’90s and my family probably didn’t feel in the mid ’80s, you know. We’re going to continue to do great things here. And I think we’re only limited by our own thinking, real or imagined. The sky’s the limit for Pittsburgh. And as long as we have consensus on what it is we want to be when we grow up, we’ll get there. We are incredibly creative, resilient and resourceful city. And we’ll continue to be so.