Fitzgerald touts diversity, development progress in County

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After two years at the helm of Allegheny County government, Executive Rich Fitzgerald told the New Pittsburgh Courier Editorial Board his administration is making headway on a number of fronts.

So, up front, he started with some numbers.

“We added 16,000 jobs last year and our Gross Regional Product is up by 6.3 percent, well above the 1.2 percent national average,” he said. “And the county’s fund balance is up too.  When I came in it was at $5.7 million. By the end of 2012, we got it up to $12 million. Now at the end of 2013, we’re at about $20 million, and we did it with no tax increases.”

The local/regional economy is doing so well because of its diversification. He pointed to banking, hi-tech, hospitals and universities, and the energy sector as growth industries, all of which are based in and around Pittsburgh.

And amid all this growth, Fitzgerald said his administration is making sure, at the county level, that everyone participates.

“In two years, 23 percent of our new hires have been African-Americans, 25 percent minorities,” he said. “Also, 20 percent of Public Works contracts went to Black firms, and so did 16 percent of our service and vendor contracts.”

He highlighted several Black directors and deputies in county departments including Public Defender Elliott Howsie and his Deputy Director Shanika Kennedy, Shuman Center Director Earl Hill and Quentin Bullock, the new president of the Community College of Allegheny County.

“Twenty-five percent of my board appointments have been African-Americans,” Fitzgerald said.

But the biggest relief, and the best news for the county going forward, he said, was the passage of a transportation bill in Harrisburg last year.

“That’s a big win for us,” he said. “Having dedicated funding for 10 years, not having to go beg for money. It’s huge in terms of selling the area to businesses and developers, who know they’ll be able to move their people and products for 10 years without interruption.”

Fitzgerald also said the county is looking for ways to increase utilization and lower costs at county parks, and have done so through partnerships with private firms.

We have a company operating a zip-line out in North Park and people are flocking to that, and there’s the boathouse; it was collapsing, we turned it over to an outfit that made it a restaurant,” he said. “We had problems with the ski lifts and snow-making equipment out at Boyce Park because we don’t have anyone who knows that stuff, so we hired the guy who used to do that at Hidden Valley. Attendance is way up.”

He also noted the county will benefit from shale gas drilling underneath the parks, but added that the health department will be monitoring operations and making sure everything is done safely.

Going forward, he said he expects to work closely with his former neighbor Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, and is looking toward to economic development beyond the city in Rankin, Wilkinsburg, Braddock,  McKees Rocks and other declining communities.

He said there are looming challenges at the airport with service, costs and providers, but on the bright side it’s about expansion.

“Now we’re having to look at managing growth,” he said. “We’ve been managing decline for decades and now we’re not. And that’s a good thing.”

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