Grant Oliphant. Photo by Rob Larson

The inauguration of Bill Peduto as mayor of Pittsburgh in January ushered in a wave of energy and capped a feeling of renewal in Pittsburgh, along with a re-ordering of civic leadership.

The timing aligns with another wave of new leadership throughout the region, from the public sector (The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University and the Port Authority) to the private sector (PNC Bank, hugely influential in our community) and nonprofits, including the Heinz Endowments and Carnegie Museums.

We asked four leaders from various fields, now in new positions, about their visions and plans in their roles and how their work will affect our region. What does it mean for our city and region in moving forward?

“We’re seeing a huge shift, a complete alignment of progressive leadership at the city and county,” says Grant Oliphant, who is taking over as president of the Heinz Endowments, the second largest foundation in the city. “We have two major political leaders talking about how to move the region forward together. We haven’t seen that since 1991.”

Mayor Bill Peduto. Photo by Rob Larson

Mayor Bill Peduto: a well-run city is a vibrant city

One of those leaders is, of course, Mayor Bill Peduto, who said in his inaugural speech in January,  “It is my job to turn this moment into an opportunity for reform.” He has made it known from the start that his goal is working in collaboration with others in running the city, from top leaders such as County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, to city residents trying to improve their neighborhoods.

His style has already been branded by the national press as Peduto Urbanism.

“We are going to take models we have used successfully in neighborhoods such as East Liberty and use them to build ladders of opportunity in communities that have been left out of the city’s success, like Larimer,” Peduto says. “And we make that happen by relying on a ground-up rather than top-down philosophy where the best ideas come from those people living and working in the city’s neighborhoods.”

As national press has also noted, the mayor has already made his mark in doing things differently, and quickly, from naming a chief innovation officer to pushing through an open data bill to announcing an initiative for attracting immigrants, all firsts for the city.

Peduto is cognizant of the many challenges facing the city and the work that needs to be done specifically in areas such as the environment, air quality and under-served neighborhoods.

“I’ve started the city’s first Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment precisely to tackle these problems, helmed by Valerie McDonald Roberts and Dr. Curtiss Porter, ” he says. “Working with them are experts in the fields of housing, nonprofits, small business and education—improving resources for all those factors should improve the neighborhoods that have been left behind. The city’s new sustainability manager, Grant Ervin, works daily with partners around the region to address air quality and other environmental concerns.”

As for opportunities? “There are so many to choose from, but one thing that will take all of those things—leadership, vision and industry—will be Pittsburgh’s place on the world stage when it comes to sustainable manufacturing,” Peduto answers. “With our existing research capabilities at the city’s universities and its stocks of developable industrial land, we are perfectly positioned to work with forward-thinking businesses to make the city a leader in sustainable, environmentally-friendly manufacturing.”

Grant Oliphant: A vibrant city is an innovative city

In his new role as president of the Heinz Endowments, Grant Oliphant, known for his innovative work at the Pittsburgh Foundation, senses a new opportunity for Pittsburgh. “We’ll work closely with the mayor and (Allegheny County Executive) Rich Fitzgerald because they’re interested in big, bold and ambitious agendas,” he says. “They’ve come to us on how to do a better job with big data to make changes in government and drive better practices. They’re not afraid to take on issues including the August Wilson Center and the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“It feels like this is a moment when everything is on the table and we have a chance to do things differently than they’ve been done in decades.”

Part of that is due to the transformation of Pittsburgh over the years.

“We’re not in deficit mode any more,” Oliphant points out. “This resurgent, emerging community has a chance to move to the next level. We’re doing more on the environment and sustainability, we have good design, the riverfront, are tackling clean air and water. We need to take on the challenge of poverty in our community, the divide in race. But I see a willingness to take it on.”

Oliphant’s view of the role of foundations is one that was shaped by Teresa Heinz Kerry, board chair of the Heinz Endowments, and the late Sen. John Heinz, with whom Oliphant worked decades earlier.

“We invest in innovative programs to address challenges and opportunities—we invest to model a way forward. A foundation’s money is social risk capital; we take risks on behalf of the social mission.”

“My primary job at the Endowments will be to be a good steward of the values of the Heinz family. Their values are so powerful and grounded in this community. As an institution, the family does not accept mediocrity—they’re interested in transformative changes and big thinking.”

Musings on leadership take Oliphant back to his friend and former mentor, Sen. Heinz. “This is what I learned from John Heinz: If you want to make things happen, do the doable thing, and do it now. Meanwhile, work on the impossible thing.”

Ellen McLean, photo by Rob Larson.
Ellen McLean, photo by Rob Larson.

Ellen McLean: A vibrant city is a connected city

If there’s one issue that rises to the top of every “what does Pittsburgh need?” conversation, it’s good transit. And that’s the job of Ellen McLean, appointed by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to lead the Port Authority. So, how does the future look for this once beleaguered and underfunded group? Things are looking up.

On-time performance. Digital displays. Mobile apps. Real time. “It’s all in the pipeline and beginning to unfold,” says Ellen McLean, the new head of the Port Authority. “BRT (bus rapid transit) from downtown to Oakland is a big piece—the spine of the system. And 30 percent of the Pittsburgh population is millennial so we have to focus on tech-driven transit.”

The recently-passed transportation bill (Act 89) in Harrisburg will offer funding stability at the county level, something which has been absent.

“We haven’t lost that many riders because we have dedicated people that want transit. We’ll win the others back. Act 89 allows us to think differently. We can work with the city on the Oakland-downtown corridor and how it meshes with buses, bikes, pedestrians. When they remake this as a complete streets model, we can put service on it.”

McLean, who recently sought recommendations from the Urban Land Institute to improve transit in her organization,  is also looking outward to other U.S. cities that offer intriguing models for redefining the region’s next wave of transit.

“Portland and Seattle are good models, so is D.C., and they’re based on funding. We haven’t had a consistent funding stream. The best models are those with a robust revenue stream, like a sales tax. Good transit agencies get local support. Dallas’ DART benefits from a one percent sales tax and there’s also a sales tax in place in Portland and Denver. It’s a community issue.”

The need for a public conversation on transit is not idle chatter to McLean. “As part of the ULI panel, we interviewed 100 stakeholders,” she says. “And we’re still taking public feedback online. We’ve had over 2,300 individuals participate and they’ve generated over 200 ideas so far.”

Dr. Vonda Wright. Photo by Rob Larson

Dr. Vonda Wright: A vibrant city is an active (and brainy) city

More than ever, cities are recognizing that healthy citizens make for a healthier city and the mayor, who has dropped 12 pounds since winning the election, is on board. One spokesperson and leader who has emerged on the national scene with a big goal—and a plan to get people there—is Dr. Vonda Wright, an orthopaedic surgeon with UPMC Sports Medicine. Dr. Wright is the inaugural medical director of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex underway in Cranberry and due to open in June 2015. Her new post will offer a bigger megaphone for her core messages of improved health and mobility.

“We need to seize the power we hold in controlling our health,” says Dr. Wright. “We control 70 percent of our aging—only 30 percent is genetic. At the Lemieux Sports Complex, we’ll be helping patients seize that control. My goal is to change how we age in this country.”

Through the books she has written, and numerous television appearances, Dr. Wright is hoping to ignite a national movement on aging. Her second conference scheduled in Pittsburgh this November is designed “to equip you to fortify your body, build a better brain and prioritize your bliss!”

How would she break this down for the Pittsburgh population, with one of the oldest average ages in the country?

“To truly embrace health, you cannot know where to go unless you have a vision. Next, take action. Purposeful mobility—we need to get off our rear ends and be active every day. Then we have to change our attitudes. Everything we do that’s good for our bodies builds a better brain. Lastly, we have to measure our achievement. We can do this in Pittsburgh! We have running and biking trails, Venture Outdoors,” she says. “We have everything we need to be an active city.”

What’s next for sports medicine at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, which will also serve as the new training facility for the Pittsburgh Penguins?

“We’re building teams of clinicians—surgeons, radiologists,” continues Wright. “Teams of people to take care of teams. Sports medicine is not just for elite athletes, it’s for all—adult-onset athletes, glory-dayers, kids, women elites, weekend warriors.”

And about that name over the door. Dr. Wright, who is married to former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Peter Taglianetti, has a unique perspective. “Mario is a tremendous talent. He’s raised a quality family, got really sick twice and came back. He’s channeled his energy from athletics into lots of charitable work. It’s not easy for an elite athlete to focus on someone else, to turn to the care of others, the care of a city.”

Another example of new leadership, we would point out, in a city that is poised for greatness.

Elaine Labalme

Elaine Labalme
My mother's black bean soup recipe is the best ever. Some day, I will write a book about her Cuban cooking. I met Pope John Paul II by chance in Rome in 1991. He had the bluest eyes and the softest hands. If I've said it once, I've said it ten thousand times: "You don't ask, you don't get."