David M. Matter

Oxford Development
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If there’s one thread that runs through my life, it’s the importance of mentorship. I was born in 1946, which makes me a baby-​boomer — barely — and grew up in Carrick. Overall, I had a pretty normal upbringing.

My first mentor was a high school teacher named Bob Hickey. I had him for German, and he became a dear friend throughout school and afterwards.

As a senior, I was interested in international affairs, politics and government, so I applied to Duquesne, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins. Bob steered me to Georgetown. He thought it was the right fit. I figured he knew the institution and, more importantly, he knew me. So I took his advice and enrolled at the university’s School of Foreign Service.

That first semester at Georgetown, we had class elections, and a fellow by the name of Bill Clinton ran for freshman class president. I happened to run the campaign for his opponent. In any case, Bill won handily, but we became friends and remain so today.

In my office, I have a photo of him taken at a Pirates-​Phillies game in 1992, during his first campaign for president of the United States. I can’t recall who was running the Pirates at the time, but I had made arrangements to take Bill to the broadcast booth. So we went up there, and as soon as the Pirates management found out that Bill was on the air, they cut him off at the next commercial break. I don’t know if this was because they didn’t like Bill or if they were worried about having to offer equal time to Republicans.

Anyway, after Georgetown, I came back to Pittsburgh. Like so many of my contemporaries, I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so my good friend Bob Hickey got me a job teaching at Vincentian High School. As a result, I got a deferment from military service (which I lost with my next professional move, but we’ll get to that later).

One day during that time, after driving a friend home — he had a one-​way alley behind his house — I was heading out and got almost to the corner when a taxi pulled in facing me. The cabbie would not back out to let me pass. Instead, he inched up until he hit my car. I got upset. When the cabbie rolled down his window, I could smell the alcohol. I wouldn’t leave and wouldn’t let him leave, so I called the police, who came, took him to the station and scheduled a hearing about the incident. On the specified day, I arrived at the courthouse to learn that the hearing had been postponed. So what’s a guy to do?

Well, Pete Flaherty had announced his candidacy for mayor of Pittsburgh earlier that day, so I walked over to his headquarters and volunteered to work for him. I had seen the press about Pete, “the independent man against the machine,” and it appealed to me. I started going to his headquarters every day after work to volunteer — and got hooked.

That summer, when school was out, I wanted a job so I went to Pete, who had won the primary, and asked, “Could you help me get something, maybe in the Parks Department?” He did. And guess who was in charge there? A man named Richard S. Caliguiri, about whom I knew a little, but didn’t know personally.

In August, supporters held a fundraiser for Pete at a bar in Market Square called The Stolen Base. I was there and in came Dick Caliguiri. I walked up to him, introduced myself and said, “You probably don’t know, but I worked for you this summer. And I have to tell you that I’ve seen a lot that I think can be improved.” (I’m not sure I was that polite.) But instead of saying “Get lost, kid,” Dick said, “Here’s my card. Come and see me.” So we met and chatted for an hour or so, then he asked, “Why don’t you think about coming to work for me full time?” Long story short — I didn’t go back to teaching. (With this move, I lost my deferment for military service, and I had a low draft lottery number. But Dick came to my aid and helped me get into the Pennsylvania National Guard.)

Soon, Dick decided that he wanted to get into political life. There was a vacancy on City Council because one of the members had retired. Back then, the city had what was called “Balkanization” of City Council. They had a seat for an Italian, one for a woman, another for an African-​American and one for a Polish person. So, for example, if an Italian resigned or died, they had to find another Italian to replace him or her.

Well, Dick was appointed to fill the Italian seat — but he didn’t toe the party line. So when his term expired and he had to run to hold that seat, the party didn’t endorse him. He decided to run anyway as an independent Democrat, without the party’s stamp of approval. I ran his campaign, which he won. And I ran all of his campaigns from then on.

Dick and I became very close friends. He became mayor when Pete Flaherty was appointed deputy attorney general by Jimmy Carter in 1977 and was set to serve out the remainder of Pete’s term, which amounted to about seven months. Nevertheless, Dick asked me to join his administration, as chief of staff. But I was hesitant. After all, I was married and had a child. I needed something more long-​term. Enter Jack Robin, whom the mayor had just appointed to chair the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

In the mid-​1970s, there was a plan to develop a mass transit system from the South Hills to Pittsburgh called Skybus. As mayor, Pete Flaherty opposed it and the whole thing collapsed, leaving no program for mass transit in the city. Jack Robin, because of his stature in the community, came in, got the parties together, and brokered a plan that was acceptable to all, which included the busways and the light-​rail transit you see today.

Now for the mentorship: It was Jack Robin who urged me to take the chief of staff position with the Caliguiri administration, and I did. Shortly thereafter, he told me that, for development activity to occur in the city, he believed the driving force had to come from the mayor’s office. He suggested that we create something called the Mayor’s Development Council, populated with key directors of city departments and officials from outside agencies such as the Regional Industrial Development Corporation and the Port Authority. Jack also suggested that I chair the new entity. Our job was to make sure that city-​stimulated development, or that which was initiated from the outside and required city support and participation, was properly organized.

For the first six months, not much was going on. But then all of a sudden, we got a call from some people who wanted to come and talk to us because they had an unnamed major corporation that was interested in building a new headquarters downtown. We spent a number of months working with them, providing information and looking at different sites before we even knew who it was. It turned out to be PPG. We eventually formed a subgroup of the Mayor’s Development Council that met once a week with a team of people from PPG, and I co-​chaired it with the executive from PPG who was responsible for the development. I was happy to see PPG in Pittsburgh.

While I didn’t know it, throughout this process, I was becoming a developer — all because of Jack Robin and his encouragement. Thanks to him, I took the short-​term job with Dick that ultimately lasted nine years, during which we accomplished a lot for Pittsburgh, including the development of what has come to be known as the city’s Cultural District.

One day, the Mayor got a call from Jack Heinz, the senator’s father, who asked if he could come in for a meeting. It turned out that Mr. Heinz had a team of consultants from New York and elsewhere that had proposed the creation of a district that would use the arts to stimulate economic development.

The plan was to acquire the Stanley Theater, which was used mostly for rock concerts, and convert it into a theater for performing arts groups. What they had in mind was to take the properties within that district, cap the city’s tax revenue at the current assessment level, and then dedicate any additional revenue from higher assessments in the future to the development of this new cultural district. But Pennsylvania law did not permit tax increment financing at that time. (It does now.) I came back from one of the meetings and said to Dick, “This won’t work politically. You’ll never get it through.”

As proposed, the plan would have placed the entire burden on city taxpayers, and it was a terrible time to do that. The steel industry had collapsed, and we were supposed to take a big swatch of downtown Pittsburgh and, essentially, freeze city tax collections in that area and apply everything else to a silk-​stocking notion of cultural facilities? Dick said to me, “This is just too important. If we can’t do that, we’ve got to find another way.” So I thought about it for a while and came back with an idea.

The important thing was to make the new district a destination for more than just city residents. Lots of suburbanites would no doubt want to take advantage of it, so we had to bring in Allegheny County. I said, “Since it has, by virtue of its charter, the authority to own public venues, why don’t we have the Public Auditorium Authority acquire the Stanley Theater? That way, both the city and the county could jointly provide the support that’s necessary to get this started.”

Around that time, Jack Robin suggested that I attend the Urban Land Institute Convention in Seattle. So I did, and who did I run into? A man named Ernie Hutton, who was the consultant that Jack Heinz hired for the very project we had on our plate. I had a drink with him and told him my idea, and he thought it was good. Senator Heinz helped us get a UDAG [Urban Development Action Grant]. The Benedum Foundation offered a major piece of funding, and the rest of the corporate and foundation communities chipped in. And that’s how the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts came to be.

Anyway, by 1986, I was tired. I had done public service full time for almost a decade and decided it was time to move on. Next, I spent two years at Massaro Properties and, one day, while having lunch with Eddie Lewis, the head of Oxford Development Company, Eddie asked, “How would you like to work for me?” So I took him up on it. That was 1988. But never for a moment did I think I’d end up as president and CEO, which I did. Now, 22 years later, I’m newly retired. It’s time to recharge.

When I look back on my life, everything I’ve accomplished and everything I’ve become has been because of someone else — their advice, their giving me an opportunity. You just can’t figure things out or plan well enough to do it on your own. If you don’t have help — and some good luck — it’s pretty hard to succeed out there. I benefited from a lot of helping hands and, as a result, in a small way, I’ve lived the American Dream.

Jeff Sewald

Jeff is an award-​winning independent filmmaker and writer who specializes in defining the cultural significance of American people, places, things and events. Among other projects, he is currently producing a television documentary about the history of jazz in Pittsburgh, and is co-​authoring the memoirs of famed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.

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