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'Imagine' to blur region's divisions

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Friday, Aug. 15, 2008

The Charlotte region in North and South Carolina won a National Football League franchise and expanded jobs by working as a region, rather than as 16 separate counties in two states.

Now the Pittsburgh region wants to do something similar.

Perhaps early next year, leaders from 33 counties in Western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and western Maryland will begin reshaping the area's identity.

The initiative, called Imagine Greater Pittsburgh, is the brainchild of three nonprofits -- the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership.

"The point of this is to create a sense of identity for our region," said Kevin Evanto, spokesman for Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato. "The regions that are succeeding are the ones that have a strong regional identity. They don't get hung up on municipal boundaries, county boundaries and state boundaries."

Charlotte and Calgary, Canada, are good examples of that.

Charlotte began thinking regionally in 1991, at first with 11 counties and eventually 16, under the Charlotte Regional Partnership.

Gina Howard, spokeswoman for the partnership, said the approach helped that area land an NFL team and other businesses.

"Everybody's pulling together across state lines," she said. "That's why we're the Carolina Panthers rather than the Charlotte Panthers.

"If you're just trying to recruit businesses from your neighbors, you're not adding jobs to the economy."

In 2004, Calgary set a vision that improves how it connects its light-rail system to where the most people live, said Linda Spenser, manager of the Imagine Calgary Transition Team.

Pittsburgh's initiative differs from earlier efforts because of its size -- as many as 33 counties in four states -- and a growing sense that all counties in the area benefit from the economic gains of one.

"A win for one county is a win for all of us," Howard said.

Evanto agreed that attempts to think regionally are nothing new here. But, he said, the greater understanding of the global economy is likely to make the current effort more successful.

He said money for the project will come from foundations and corporations.

Organizers are trying to recruit a steering committee that will hire a staff. William P. Getty, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, hopes the project starts early next year.

"We need to think how we can be most competitive (not only) in a global context, but also in an energy-constrained economy," said Getty, one of the organizers.

According to another organizer, Gregg Behr, executive director of The Grable Foundation, one of the goals is to recognize issues such as economic development, work force preparation, environmental conservation, education and public infrastructure.

Leaders of the initiative say it will solicit ideas about the future of the region from citizens through a variety of forums.

"If the past for Pittsburgh has been top-down decision-making, with a select few people deciding what the future of the region ought to be, this is the opposite of that," said Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. "It's involving the whole community in a dialogue about what the future ought to look like."

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