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Business as Usual: PRA President Mark Anthony Thomas

Business as Usual

We are kicking off this week of Business as Usual by welcoming Mark Anthony Thomas, President of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA), to the webcast today. Mark was appointed President of the PRA in July 2019 and is responsible for creating, developing and executing the 10-county region’s economic development strategy, and advancing partnerships to drive job creation and business investment. Mark will fill us in on the new "Pittsburgh Region: Next is Now" marketing campaign to promote Pittsburgh (external and internally) as an attractive place to live, work and play. He will also overview the PRAs recent efforts to attract new technology companies and investments to the region and how COVID-19 has impacted its work to date.




Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome. Today we're excited about our guests that we're having on the show today. And I'm going to introduce him in a moment. But before we get started, I would like to just sort of do a little bit of housekeeping. And a little bit of honoring Huntington bank. Huntington bank has been a sponsor of this series and many other things that we've done over the years, particularly in media and anything related to storytelling. Jonathan kersting, is who's vice president of all things, storytelling, and media is also on the call today. And he's an integral part of the team at the tech Council. And I also would like to give a shout out to Brian Kennedy, who has been behind the scenes as executive producer, in addition to all the other things that he does each and every day, as well as the rest of the team who makes sure that this noon time conversations are not only enjoyable, but run smoothly, and matter. So one of the things that that today is it's October 12. And it's indigenous day. And many of you know that in you know, the, in previous years, it was known as Columbus Day. But Pittsburgh, if you don't know actually really does have a deep background, in terms of this being a tribal land. And I would encourage each and every one of you to read about that. And or when you have a chance go to the History Museum, because there is a lot about the French and Indian War. There's also a lot about the many, many hundreds and hundreds of years of, of tribal presence in our region. And actually, most recently, in the 60s, one third of Seneca tribal land was taken by the US government to create the qinzhou Dam north east of the city. So it was that project was built as a way to help towns across the Allegheny River to deal with flooding. But really little consideration was given to the native people living there. So nearly 600, Seneca were displaced, and thousands of acres were flooded. So yes, there was Indian land here. And so I encourage you to do a little bit of reading and get cognizant about the Seneca nation tribe. So I do want to now bring up Mark Thomas, Mark Thomas is joining us today. And we are going to set the stage with him. But and talk about the work that he's done and who Mark Thomas is the man and a little bit about the PRA and work related to things that are very near and dear to the work at the tech councils making sure that this is an amazing place Southwestern Pennsylvania, for people to build their lives and build companies and land here. And with changes of COVID, I hope to do a little bit of a dive in to to sort of explore about what kinds of things changed and what he's seen. So we've muted your microphones, and there's a chat. So I would encourage each and every one of you to engage in that Jonathan will keep an eye on that. So without any further ado, I'm bringing Mark Thomas to the program. And I before we talk Mark about this regional brand and the PRA, you know that you just rolled out, let's just talk about Mark, Mark, the man who is Mark, before you came here, you had a journey from like, think Columbia and MIT to the publishing business. You're a little bit of a writer. And you know, you've done some early work with the mayor, who's still the mayor of Los Angeles. And you've done some time and economic development in New York. So if you could just sort of tell us a little bit about mark, that would be fabulous.

Sure. So first, thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here. A little backstory. So I've always been in sorts of economic development. I think when I was younger, I thought journalism and writing was my way to express my thoughts. Could you necessarily see that as a career prospect at 16. And so I spent two thirds of my career working in communications. I grew up in Atlanta area, and then moved to New York, in my late 20s. And it was there that I became a publisher of a news organization at a time where journalism was fully being disrupted by tech. So it was quite exciting to think of all the tools and new technologies to help a broad community understand economic development issues. And so it was kind of early 30s for me when I started to think, Okay, what do I do next? This has been exciting. I enjoy writing about these topics. I actually want to be a change agent within the public sector. And so I went to business school at MIT use that time to really study how government and how societies kind of manage innovation and manage these big things. At the same time, you had Occupy Wall Street, you had all these themes that were very clear that as a society, we were kind of verging into two different directions. And so I really wanted to look at like issues of inclusion and themes around that area. When I graduated, I went to Los Angeles. Fortunately, Mayor crosetti took me in as a person who really had never worked within the space. And I served in two roles first through a nonprofit called fuse Corp, which takes executives who doesn't work in the public sector, and gives you like a senior advisor role within it. And then I was hired to be his director of operations, innovation. And in both of those roles, I worked on systematic reforms that impacted Los Angeles is economy. That was exciting. As my term was wrapping up there, I went back to New York City, and worked for their economic development corporation, in a brand new role as the head of partnerships, is just a little bit about their structure. They are the largest real estate owner in New York with over 60 million square feet of property. And they use the revenue they generate to really drive industry investment and economic development. And so I was there for a few years. And then as things got interesting, I started to look for a new home and found Pittsburgh as the last really nice circle here. And I'm excited to be here.

Oh, that's great. Thank you. Thanks for sharing that. So you. So you're at the helm of the Pittsburgh regional Alliance, which is actually part of the Allegheny conference. So can you tell us what, you know, what is the PRA? I mean, I know what it is. And you know, just the talk about the history, the mission, and it's also relationship with the Pittsburg chamber.

Yeah, so the conference was founded over 75 years ago, oh, really, to serve as a civic leader for the region. Pra was actually founded about two decades ago as a separate entity. It was consolidated as part of the conference to really support the region's competitiveness for investment. our peers across the country actively compete for investment for talent, all the issues that really drive for investment. And so we absorbed under the conference that gave us institutional support to make that happen. The Chamber's serves as our policy arm. And then they also manage the network of regional chambers, this country so fragmented as a region, we also have a resource arm that drives economic thinking, that impacts our work. And so what pra does on a day to day basis, we're talking to businesses, we're talking to consultants, we're talking to entities are looking for new markets to invest in and try to make the case for Pittsburgh. And we also work closely with local businesses if they need support in staying here or expanding. And so we really have those two buckets that drive our work. But comprehensively, the conference is really the voice for not just business before the future of the region, and how do we make sure that public private partnerships, economic development, inclusion, all those things are aligned to keep us moving forward?

Great. And then you were making reference to the economy league? Is that the other organs referring to that does the research on Okay, so recently, I think just in the last couple of weeks, and Jonathan, on our team has been involved in that you actually have launched out a new marketing brand. So can you talk about that work? And then just talk about, you know, what goes into developing and thinking about a regional brand and why this might be different?

Yeah, so one thing I noticed, I'll kind of speak to when I first came up, you talk to 30 different people about Pittsburgh, they all have a different way of talking about it. Um, and one consistent theme was we leaned heavily on our history. And I think it comes from this humble place of where we survive things that very few places have been through. And so there is that humility there. But if you're looking for a place that's really exciting, that captures kind of what you want to build or be you someone need a different message. And so the brand is really designed to speak to that aspect of, of individuals. And it gives us a shear document, a shared approach, a general framework of how you would talk about Pittsburgh, to someone who's looking to us, for a company looking to stay here and expand and help their own talent. understand the value proposition that we offer. The brand does that in a unified form, and launching the brand gives us an opportunity to work closely with all of our partners, which ranged from the tech Council of the airport, to nonprofits, to businesses, to our 10 county partners, who all now have a guidebook on how they will promote the region.

And so that's interesting. So, where we all know here that we tend to be proud and intent and entrenched in the past. But aren't some of those things assets for us as well? Or am I just being too provincial?

They are but but but it matters. If you understand what the foundation, but if you're a business, and you really want to understand can this market help me scale to hire 1000 people, 5000 people, can I be immersed in the community and make a difference? We speak to that. So the brand moves us beyond the foundational history to those assets that we think are more key to the stuff that we have to respond to. Yeah, so

probably me kicking it off by talking about, you know, our ancestors. And what we've done in on the day of indigenous day isn't aligned with the thinking of going forward? Well, I think,

Oh, no, sir. No, gone. Yeah, no, yes. And I think what makes the region so iconic, and this is what drew me to Pittsburgh is it does have this amazing history. And it's one of the richest American cities as far as its story. And I think we definitely don't want to shy away from that. But the future, and when he really tore the city and see what communities are building and what people want the region to become like, that is exciting. And I think it is that message that we want to make sure is at the forefront.

Yeah, that's fair. That's fair. And so as we look out rolling the brand, what are some of the strategies that are in place to do this? And so that, how do we make sure that it touches each and every one of us that are in business and embracing it?

First, we're actually kind of building awareness internally first. So that's working with everyone from our community development Corporation's to developers. So they understand this is how you talk about the brand. And I think you'll see more aggression, because even communities that have been forgotten for a long time really want to attract business, and make sure they're entrepreneurs and businesses died. So you'll see a lot of that. The second is, you'll see us promoting way more aggressively than I think you'd have before. And I made it very clear over the first year that I want us to be well positioned to compete for every type of investment and growth company that we hear some word is out there looking for a new home. And I think in being part of those conversations, we can ensure that they've making a decision that enables them to become a Pittsburgh company, and live the values that we really hold dear. And so I don't want there to ever be a pure what people don't know, what PR is working on, or what companies were supporting, or what talent initiatives that would drive into make sure people find a home here.

And so, it what what was your impression coming here? I mean, just I mean, first of all, you took the job, but then coming here as a black man coming into a place where you know, we we have, you know, a somewhat diverse community, but we also have a bifurcated community. Do you have any, any perspective on that?

Yeah, to me, I will say those important. All the cities have loved kind of like a a black community that that is key. And Pittsburgh was no different than that, like, you know, I understood, it had the chance of beating all of us Molson. And that was a transformative experience. And so I was always following Pittsburgh as a result of that. And to some extent, you don't know the deficit or challenges of a place until you live here. And but I will say what I went on a tour before I was deciding to move here, seeing those challenges, is seeing the state of some of the black communities actually encouraged me to want to be here. And so the thing about economic development, I think this is important, like, you don't want to just make a rich place richer, like that is not exciting at this age for me, and so when I saw the hill district, Homewood and even when I tore the 10 county region Saw Newcastle and places Russell Okay, I can really make a difference if we do this right? Obviously, we want to build where we're strong in our, like high tech sectors. But it was really how do you create a shared vision that can elevate everyone that really enticed me to come here. And so, in moving here, I've been fully embraced as an outsider got an awesome issue for a lot of local folks. But I wanted to build allies, I wanted to get to know people as well as I could, before I really felt comfortable promoting the place. And I think, given obviously, tap my time has been in quarantine, I was able to get like an immediate understanding of the region before we really started actively promoting.

Yeah, that's fair. And and one of the things that I know that you have done right away, even before quarantine, if you actually spent time outside of Allegheny County.

Yeah. And and a woman is sure, it was important for me for them to know that, yes, I worked in these big urban cities. But I grew up in like the Westmoreland County of Atlanta. So I understand what it's like in a lived experience to be not the shiny object that people want to invest in, or the school go to the schools that the big corporates don't want to partner with. And so I wanted to make sure that you understood I crafts that and I view them as crucial to our thriving as a region. And frankly, if the broad 10 counties don't succeed, you hear a lot of people assume you can just fix the city. And then that solves the problems. That's somewhat antiquated, thinking like, regions that thrive generally brought across borders. And so I wanted to make sure that they were pulling into the broader strategy for us to elevate.

And how many counties does does the PRA cover? 10 m, cross southwest and B, I keep forgetting whether it's 10 or 14.

It's actually a lot of grout like, you know, some places take an hour to get to. Yeah, but what I do like is we all there is a sense of shared responsibility and shared interest in each other.

And I imagine those counties have felt left out. And when you talk about Pittsburgh, you're now talking about Pittsburgh as region even in the brand.

Yes. And I think we tried to make sure what the brand that they felt part of it. I wanted to understand what they view as a strategic opportunities, I want to understand the university's talent pools, and really get a sense of culture, so that we're promoting it, we could actually be authentic in our pitch.

And so what about as we look at attracting, you know, both new jobs people, right, and our organizations have really been talking about talent. I mean, that's all people really talk about, right? I mean, getting the greatest people to work on some of the hardest problems and to support those industries all up and down the supply chain. So I mean, talent is the capital, right? talent is, is the asset. That's what it is. It's not the brick and mortar, it's the people. So how will your work in this brand space help us attract diverse talent to the region? And how would the brand engage with, you know, workers and people who already are here? Because there's always that kind of tension right. Now? What about me? I'm here.

Yeah. And I think us, at least in how we've structured the brand, we've put people first. And so what we try to understand one of the assets that people like about being in Pittsburgh and us, the natural environment, that is the culture, that's the creative economy, it's all those things. And those are things that people want to get past kind of the cost of being here. They want to know that. So there's that there's a piece of how do we make sure people who are here, understand the opportunities that are available in the pitch for passport really fits into that framework? The third is, we understand that companies have to really believe that they're attracting talent or hiring locally, that they have pipelines for both. And so we do really well if you have infinite level talent out of universities, in just the pool of people who are leaving is really a pool of talent that people can retain and invest in over the future. The piece that we definitely have a disadvantage of some of the markets with a larger population. That's kind of the 25 minutes. And I think for us to really address that we have to just be a place that people can feel they can. They're not missing out on excitement, from being an innovation hub. But they could also buy a house to live a nice life here. And so that message has to be elevated into how we market the region. Oh, but what about

like, what are you finding? Since COVID? Right? Like, I mean, you're still working during COVID?

Yeah, yeah.

Yeah, so we actually, I don't think we knew what would happen at first. But it's actually led to an uptick in the types of companies that are now looking at Pittsburgh. Um, and so I suspect a lot of people are making necessarily decisions now. But their scouting for 2021 2022. And so I feel so good about when we are in a full fledged recovery, the types of investments that we'll be able to announce, I think there are companies that are local people will say, wow, that's coming to Pittsburgh, or that's investing in Pittsburgh, I can stay, or industries that really are at the forefront. And I think, I think our next few years will be bright as far as at least what we can do to contribute to vitality.

Are you seeing changes in trends, though, like, you know, what, in our world in tech, you know, Microsoft just announced Friday that everyone can work remotely. And you know, Spotify has already done that Twitter's already done that, etc, etc. What do you think about that? Are you hearing any kind? And you know, obviously, we're gonna talk about tech, and you represent wider than just tech. So what what are you hearing? and having that Baptists?

Well, so I think there are a couple things right, there's there will be now flexibility for people to kind of live wherever they want. And I think in that bucket, we have to compete for people who want to live instead of shop in Pittsburgh. And I think that's where I do think there will be an interest in like co working spaces and sheer community. And it's important for us to have that message front and center. The second is, I think we're will be on the positive end of companies are leaving the expensive markets, because they can now employ people in alternative markets, which, which is, you know, so there was this arrogance of the Silicon Valley in New York, and just those hubs that like, you had to only be here. And if you weren't here, you weren't important. And so if anything, COVID has undercut that thinking. And so I think that is good for all of the markets like ours, that are actually trying to, like attract some of those investments. Um, and the last piece is we're actually competing for opportunities now where there may just be less of a real estate footprint, but the employees would have access to grow, remote working. And so it forces us to look at issues of fair broadband, and 5g and some of this infrastructure investment so that remote workers within the region have the same access as other places.

Do you think there's a question? It's a longer question, but I think that really what she's asking is that the immigration restrictions?

You've been hearing about that like that?

Well, it is, that is an area that, at least through our chamber, we're advocating for a more open policy, like, you know, this has been like years in the making where it's gotten increasingly harder. And just a lot of the folks I know who are not American, are now looking at other places, versus everyone wanted to be here. And there's just a lack of certainty left, like I've written a number of us support letters for friends who are trying to stay here, who were brilliant at what they do. And so I think, for us to really stay as a place where tech innovation is driven, we have to have a more open society, we're also going to change.

So you know, it's funny, a few years ago, we took that we were in the valley in Silicon Valley, and I had a chance to talk to Sheryl Sandberg, you know, who's the CEO of Facebook and kept up with her for a little while. And her whole point was, I don't need to open up an office in Pittsburgh because I get the greatest kids and young people that come out of Carnegie Mellon, and they come and work for Facebook. I don't need any more brick and mortar. These people can come here. Now of course fast forward. We have Facebook reality labs here. And you know they have a great better they have a great footprint. What Can we be doing to try to ship that, you know, over time in terms of the conversations that are had with potentials that are here?

Yeah. And so I think, what was your

goal is here.

But the conversations now aren't around brick and mortar. I mean, in that, I think that's the thing that we need to really reckon with as a community. And I think it's what you mentioned earlier about destination and excitement. So I want to pick up on both of those, those points. So concrete, it's not brick and mortar. But it's also about the sense of being in a place that has some level of excitement. And I would say, diversity, you know, and diversity and everything. Yeah,

so I think there's, so I'll share kind of some productivities, I lead this thing now called the red team, which includes the university is city, Allegheny County. And that was established really to create the sheer cooperation toward attracting the Facebooks of the world. And I think the universities have really stepped up their investments to identify their partners. And I think Honeywell is example of where CMU had a great relationship with them. And then they are investing now in the region. And so I think you'll see a lot more of that. And that is part of strengthening just that broader community. The second piece, I do think, like the Facebook's of the world evolving, where it was this, this thinking that you had to be in the action, and they were just only a couple places where this happened. And I think if anything that's contributed to just the lack of inclusion in tech, or at least inclusion in the way that we want to see it. And so when you look at just the announcements have happened since the protests that may, or the companies investing in people of color, they're standing up new VC funds. Google last week just gave $5 million to 75 black entrepreneurs, there's so much happening now, that is really focused on bringing inclusion into the conversation. Virgin Hyperloop, investment is going to West Virginia. So there's a lot that's in the pipeline, that gives us a fair shot at really investing in our region in a way that would have been harder 10 years ago. And so I think the environment has shifted, and it's important for us to have our brand and our message and be part of the conversations so that we can actually

deliver more for the region.

So as someone who's lived in different places, and mostly more urban areas, what he in, you've been here for, like, I guess a year, close to a year and a half and realize seven months of that is COVID. What do you what do you what surprised you about Pittsburgh? And what do you wish for?

I think the biggest surprise has been just like, at least like living in the city is. It's like it is an intellectual hub. And it's a very active vision driven communities, all those things actually make it quite exciting. And if you're inquisitive, and so I don't feel like there's a shortage of just like mental stimulation between like, the culture and art and stuff. When I talk to people, they kind of assume that I'm in like, a rust belt place if they don't know Pittsburgh. Um, and all of that is like enriching. Um, the other piece of it just feels it is it feels like a small town in some sense, in a good way. Meaning I don't feel like I'm missing anything by not being in the heart of Brooklyn. Um, I feel like I'm getting kind of everything that I need as far as like lifestyle. Now, you know, I am older and I know younger people probably want to party more and have more social stuff that maybe I do. And I think that stuff that will eventually be built over time.

And so what any kind of final words that you I think there is one person that saying we're in a season where we need to keep working at home, are you hearing that, you know, working from home deliver, diminishes collaboration? Are you hearing that from potential?

This is? Why definitely the physical aspect will be muted. Until COVID is resolved. What gives me some hope is it's someone, everything's, Paul's no matter where you are. So even if I was still in Brooklyn, the lifestyle that I would have had there would have been deeply Yeah, and so I think it gives us a chance to catch up, at least in strategy and execution with places that were killing us years ago, and position ourselves for a much stronger decade than we probably were positioned for when I came.

So what what do you do for fun?

Oh, now it's like, I go, we go, you know, and I have my partner here too. So we'll socially distance with people. I took a road trip to Cleveland, cuz I'm still getting an over region. I want to see as much of like the outdoors as I can while we're socially distance. I'm painters you know, watching jack white performing SNL to see live music again. Like those cry.

No, I tried to I was talking to God about that. When he did his Van Halen tribute to motion. Oh,

yeah. So I've been caught him feed says to go to theaters and see fulfil was going to city and asylum and see great poets. So all of that I'm missing.

Well, I can't thank you enough. I do want to give a shout out for city of asylum. I'm on the board there. And right. We had a gala with Solomon rusting. So I think it's in the archives, and it was quite moving. So Mark, you heard it Mark Thomas pra president, if you want to know more about mark, you can find them on LinkedIn or you can reach out to the PRA. And you can see the kinds of things that they're up to. And then you can also hear about the next the Pittsburgh region next and the campaign there. So thank you for taking the time with us. Mark. Who do we have tomorrow, Jonathan?

Tomorrow we have the the president and CEO of the United Way stopping by lots of great work going on there. Should be a good time.

Thanks. Sure.

Okay, so thank you. Thanks, Mark. Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. Stay safe. Stay safe mark.

Thank you.

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