By Tim Hayes
Western Pennsylvania has a way of taking modesty and humility a bit too far.
One of our region’s most famous products, the actor Jimmy Stewart, from Indiana, Pa., modeled this trait in his memorable performance as George Bailey, the small-town building-and-loan manager in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
George believes himself deserving of the limitations his life has produced. He lives in a raggedly remodeled old house with a wife and brood of kids. His borderline crazy uncle has just misplaced the building-and-loan deposit. George has never even strayed outside the limits of his hometown, when he had such dreams to conquer the world.
It takes an outsider – a guardian angel, in this fantastical Hollywood tale – to show George how spectacular his impact has been, where it counts most: in the eyes of people who have counted on him to show the way.
Pittsburgh and its environs need just that sort of fresh perspective, a third-party’s-eye view of who we are, what we have, and where we can go together. How spectacular our impact can be – and already is.
Enter Mark Thomas, the new President of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. Not an Angel, Second Class, like in the movie, but something so much more practical. He is knowledgeable, energized, and perhaps best of all, young, enthusiastic and impressively experienced.
“From what I know about Pittsburgh’s past, the questions have too often been, ‘What’s the next savior industry? What’s the next big win?” Thomas noted. “But that’s not the right model. I believe some kind of reinvention is needed to have more diverse companies come to Pittsburgh.
“This is the perfect market for a tech reinvention, or a different profile of talent,” he said. “A lot of work will be needed to feed into both. Plus we make a lot of great things here. I want to lead projects that are interesting and intellectually challenging, to build on that history and expand it in new directions.”
True Character Development
One look at Thomas’ career to date shows that this formula has met with incredible success. Born in Michigan, he grew up in Georgia, outside of Atlanta, and was shaped by the culture there and the social issues of the day, calling his formative years “good precedence for life in civil service.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Georgia, Thomas sought work in corporate communications, with an eye toward leveraging technology using journalism.
Instead, drawing on another passion of working in urban planning, he went to work at Georgia Pacific, a company Thomas described as “comfortable with change.” Fire-tested in a corporate environment active in civic responsibility, Thomas moved on to studies at Columbia University, where he pursued globalization’s impact on cities.
Making what he called his first “true pivot,” next, Thomas was named Deputy Director at the Center for An Urban Future, a think tank charged with creating the next economy of New York City.
“We were looking at changes affecting small business, workforce development, tourism’s impact on outer boroughs and other key issues,” he recalled. “New York began harnessing the innovation economy. We needed to get away from finance as the main driver. The goal became lessening the dependency on Wall Street for New York’s economic health and growth by inculcating technology more into the New York economy.”
Realizing the unlocked potential, you might say. Changing the story, in other words.
Thomas then led the spin-off of the Center’s media entity, becoming publisher of “City Limits” magazine, using the newly independent publication to cultivate discussion on advocacy for causes like the changing makeup of the New York economy.
“The Center for An Urban Future and the City Limits publication both wanted to promote designed economies to create jobs using tech without leaving people behind.”
“The Center for An Urban Future and the City Limits publication both wanted to promote designed economies to create jobs using tech without leaving people behind,” he explained. “This required a shift in economic development approaches and priorities, so we studied how to create a more inclusive economy.”
The Plot Thickens
Other cities noticed the progress being achieved in New York, and in time Thomas had been recruited to Southern California – first as a Senior Advisor and then Director of the Operations Innovation Team for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“We developed a number of reforms, enacted into law, forming a better-functioning city to drive economic growth,” he said. “As Director of Operations Innovation Team, my role was to fix the city’s impediments to growth – one of which, we discovered, was that Los Angeles didn’t even know what property it owned.”
Under Thomas’ direction, this all got straightened out, becoming an important baseline for economic development. Another key factor requiring attention and improvement turned out to be procurement. The City of Los Angeles spent billions annually on procurement, but all in a decentralized system with poor controls on costs, quality and spending. Thomas created the framework for the city’s first Chief Procurement Officer. Now, the city enjoys a more streamlined and efficient procurement system, opening the door to a more diverse array of business expansions and startups.
Again, unlocking hidden potential by using resources already on hand, but not managed to their maximum benefit. Changing the story once more.
Eventually New York came calling again, hiring Thomas back in 2016 to further build out programs he had helped to initiate years earlier. By coordinating all support efforts, he helped shape strategies to attract more companies in cyber, artificial intelligence, health care and international business.
“Attracting more international businesses became the most ambitious part of the plan,” he said. “Positioning New York as the hub for international technology, you could say. We reached out and worked closely with the European Union’s cities, Israel, all global areas to convert them into becoming champions for New York as a place to locate their businesses. The idea was building a global launching pad. How do we create our own lane in technology?”
Thomas and his team had succeeded beyond even their ambitious goals, as the national search for a second headquarters for Amazon – the Amazon H2 project, as it came to be known – surfaced.
“We leveraged our ability to tell a better and unfamiliar story to attract HQ2,” Thomas said. “In shaping the site visits, the goal was to create a clear path to establishing a unique, integrated site outside of Midtown Manhattan. There were a lot of entities active in shaping the bid. Yet, there was no greater honor than being the first face and offering the welcoming handshake to a region of 17 million people.”
Amazon ultimately selected Queens and Arlington, Virginia out of 283 competing submissions, but pulled out of Queens after political opposition. While able to claim a partial victory, Thomas admits “the Amazon experience overall took a toll out of all of us on the team.” It soon became time to find a different challenge, he said.
“I felt really confident as an economic developer. I had learned a lot in Atlanta, had implemented big ideas in New York, became a change agent in Los Angeles, deepened the New York economic development progression, and survived the Amazon experience,” he said. “Now I was looking for a leadership role that also presented a good fit.”
The Next Chapter
Thomas was looking for a new place to unearth and energize latent potential. He was seeking a new challenge where a new story could be told. And that destination for Thomas became Pittsburgh.
“This appealed to me as a great passion project,” as he described his introduction to the city and region. “Pittsburgh is a very nice-sized city. I felt at the core that I could help advance the region.
“Pittsburgh is a very nice-sized city. I felt at the core that I could help advance the region.”
“I came to appreciate that Pittsburgh is authentic. I believed I could fit in here as a leader.”
So far, that prediction holds true, as Thomas has plunged headlong into understanding some of the local strengths, along with some of the local hang-ups, like the tendency to downplay our standing nationwide.
“Understanding the magic happening at the universities here is vital,” he affirms. “More needs to be developed here stemming from that work. We have population concerns. Half of the college students trained here leave. We need to better understand where they go, and why do we not have the companies here that would hire them and keep them here?
“How do we get a stronger message out there that we’re open for business? The African-American population has been quite vocal regarding the lack of opportunities, and our response has to include pathways for us within the future economy. I realized the cultural relevance of Pittsburgh before I came here, but we need to better capitalize on that advantage.”
Drawing on his prior success, especially in New York, Thomas promises to deliver notable work on behalf of Pittsburgh moving forward.
“Right now, we’re managing economic development sectors, but the real focus will be on growing companies and geographic areas where expanding companies are seeking their next office,”
“Right now, we’re managing economic development sectors, but the real focus will be on growing companies and geographic areas where expanding companies are seeking their next office,” he said.
“We need a more prevalent discussion and to craft a new pitch not so tied to local history,” Thomas continued. “What people will see from us at the PRA is everything we can do in this region. An ambitious plan across diverse sectors is the only way we can compete against our peers who are equally, if not more, competitive in their efforts.
“I see great potential here – Pittsburgh has all the right elements. The Allegheny Conference model brings business, education, community and government together. We have to make sure we’re looking at best practices and create a future-focused framework that people can see and feel themselves being a part of.”