Onorato cautiously optimistic
Allegheny County has fended off a military base closing at Pittsburgh International Airport, weathered the downsizing of US Airways, and begun developing business parks near the travel hub, but still has work to do, Chief Executive Dan Onorato said Friday.
Although optimistic during a state of the county address, Onorato cautioned that tough national competition means major corporate start-ups or relocations are unlikely.
“Everybody thinks you can hit the home run,” Onorato said. “That very rarely happens.”
Onorato unveiled no new development projects in his speech to the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, but said the six airport-area business parks will be key to generating jobs in those locations.
The airport needs to restore direct flights to Europe to attract business investors to the region, he said.
Business executives often express the same wish for direct daily flights, which haven’t existed for more than a year, said chamber President Sally Haas. “They want it and they need it,” she said.
Without land ready for new development, the county will “lose companies every day,” Onorato said.
“That’s why I’m focusing on this land,” he said. “So, if somebody wants to be near the airport and needs 20, 30, 40 acres, we have it.”
The county is helping to develop business parks in Findlay, Moon and North Fayette. Combined, they encompass 1,900 acres.
Onorato said the county’s role in airport development is to help small municipalities plan infrastructure improvements, such as roads and sewer lines, and to band together to secure state and federal money for projects.
The county once sought to market airport area development projects single-handedly, with a core airport team inside the county’s Economic Development Department.
That has changed to better reflect the regional nature of development and the ownership of parcels near the airport, said Dennis Davin, the department’s director.
The county Airport Authority owns some property and is trying to market it, Davin said. Private developers own other parcels. The county is also working more with neighboring counties to develop the airport area.
The Tri-County Airport Partnership — composed of Onorato and commissioners from Washington and Beaver counties — meets regularly to talk about lobbying federal and state officials. This year they’ll seek $8 million from the state for roads and other infrastructure work at the North Field project off Business Route 60, Davin said.
Onorato said retaining the military bases against the threat of their closing tops the list of last year’s accomplishments. He said losing the airport’s status as a hub for US Airways wasn’t as serious a setback as initially expected, because the airport has attracted Southwest Airlines and Hooters Air.
On other topics, Onorato declined to back a specific proposal for Pittsburgh’s slots casino license, but said he wants the winning bidder to include money for building a multipurpose arena.
Onorato supports reductions in state corporate income taxes to make Pennsylvania more competitive in recruiting businesses.
He also vowed not to let this year’s potentially divisive gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races cloud his relations with state and federal officials.
“At the end of the day, I think there’s going to be a lot of common ground,” he said.