MARK A. THOMAS
by Christian Morrow, Courier Staff Writer
At 16, Mark Anthony Thomas wrote a letter to the governor of Georgia, noting that all the highly touted economic investment and development in Atlanta had entirely missed poorer neighborhoods like his on the outskirts. Both the writing and the topic foreshadowed things to come.
Since then, Thomas has edited a daily newspaper, directed communications for a hospital in Israel, written award-winning books of poetry, and run economic development and promotional agencies for Los Angeles and New York City. In June he was named president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.
On Aug. 7, he and Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Stefani Pashman met with local media for an informal chat about the region, its needs, its potential and its plans to help make it “the next great place” for everyone. The Pittsburgh Regional Alliance is an affiliate of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
“First, we have to make sure we’re on the radar. I go to national tech sector conferences and read about where capital should be invested—Pittsburgh’s not even on the list,” Thomas, 40, said. “Yet Astrobotic is going to put payloads on the moon. People should be coming here just to be part of that.”
Pashman said attracting people is as important as attracting companies, but so is retaining African American talent coming out of Pittsburgh’s universities.
“The highly educated African Americans are leaving, and the ones coming in are not as educated,” she said. “We need to make sure we continue to work on improving the quality of life, environment, inclusion, workforce. We need to supercharge growth, bring more companies here. And Mark is someone with that skill set. He’s a big city guy, but he understands neighborhoods.”
Thomas also understands the need for cooperation and said the relationship between Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto—their solid relationships with Gov. Tom Wolf—is a distinct asset. That was not the case during his previous stint in New York City—at least, not at first.
“I was tasked with fixing the toxic relationship between (Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio) to work together on the Amazon HQ2 bid. And I actually thought we had it. But once the press put out everything they would be giving Amazon, there was no saving it,” he said.
“But I had been doing all the site visits and that got me to thinking about a region. So when this came up on my radar, I wanted it. I wanted a passion project where I could make a difference—and what I saw when I got here was passion; from people like Stefani, Chris Howard, Christina Cassotis, Bill Strickland, David Morehouse. It’s been a warm welcome and I’m going to be a champion for the region.”
Thomas is an Atlanta native, and earned his bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Georgia. He earned his MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MPA (Master of Public Administration) from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs.
Thomas is currently touring all 12 counties that make up the Southwestern Pennsylvania region and said it has all the amenities to be attractive and accessible to African American entrepreneurs.
“The message has to be that you can build an international company right here. The airport has British Airways,” he said. “I’ve spoken with development people from Vienna to Singapore, and I don’t know if American cities understand the level of competition for companies and talent.”
Thomas said the Amazon HQ2 competition elevated the Pittsburgh region’s status, but the region still has to be a bigger player in the big tech and development conferences. He said he also needs to learn who is providing the pathways to jobs.
“People (who’ve been excluded from past opportunities) have to believe development is for them,” he said. “That has to be baked into the cake so they can be part of the transformational conversations.”
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