Development chief Yablonsky bullish on Pittsburgh's economy

| Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Pittsburgh-area economy will be well positioned to grow when the recession ends — especially if the region develops its promising energy resources — the new head of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development said Wednesday.

"If we do the right things now, we should be able to take advantage of the economy when it turns around," said Dennis Yablonsky.

Yablonsky became CEO of the organization, which promotes regional growth in March. He succeeded F. Michael Langley, who remains a consultant.

Yablonsky took the job after serving as secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development for five years until October.

The McKeesport native outlined his priorities for the Allegheny Conference at a luncheon meeting of the Society for Marketing Professional Services, composed of architects, engineers and other construction professionals.

Yablonsky said he will promote:

• Simpler, more effective local government

• A competitive business climate, including efficient permitting and a business-friendly tax structure

• Upgrading transportation and other infrastructure, which he called "the most effective" way to stimulate the economy. The upgrading includes improving air service, such as Delta's new Pittsburgh-to-Paris flights that start June 3.

• Job creation and retention

• The region's energy economy

"Our energy economy represents one of the best opportunities for growing this economy in the next 10 years," said Yablonsky.

He cited the promise of the Marcellus Shale formation — a natural-gas formation that underlies two-thirds of the state, as well as the region's coal resources. The coal industry, especially for power generation, "isn't going away anytime in the near future," he said.

Yablonsky also touted the energy expertise available at some of the region's 35 colleges, as well as at many local companies. He cited the wind-power business at PPG Industries Inc. and the energy-supply business of Eaton Electrical Group in Moon.

"We have a lot of energy companies here to develop an energy-supply chain," he said.

Optimism about Pittsburgh's economy, however, is not universal.

The region failed to increase jobs in the past 10 years, which equates to "a lost decade," said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon.

"States that have been able to grow in the past still have an advantage in terms of their tax climate and labor climate," said Haulk. "Those are things that made them attractive in the first place, and that hasn't changed just because of the recession.

"You need to be able to generate jobs other than in education or in the doctor's office," Haulk said.

Local business and public-policy leaders "once looked longingly" at the economies of boomtowns such as Phoenix," said Yablonsky. "But they are not booming now."

By comparison, the Pittsburgh-area unemployment, for instance, stood at 7.2 percent in March, according to the most recent figures. Although that is the region's worst level in about 15 years, it is far better than the nation's 8.9 percent unemployment rate, he said.

Another healthy sign, he said, is that Western Pennsylvania businesses made capital commitments of more than $4 billion last year involving 290 local projects.

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