The first thing independent mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin would do as mayor? Reintegrate the North Shore with the Northside.
Acklin, sitting in his tidy pressroom, says that similar to the “East Side” shopping center in East Liberty that relies on a Shadyside-esque image to attract customers, the kind of rebranding that divides neighborhoods is offensive.
“What’s wrong with investing in East Liberty?” he asks.
“Acklin for Pittsburgh” signs cover the back wall of the room, and large camera lights stand on both sides. Acklin is running against incumbent Luke Ravenstahl and independent Franco Dok Harris.
He sits back in a black folding chair and talks passionately about investing in his city’s neighborhoods. “That’s where the money is. That’s where we live.”
As mayor, the Harvard grad would like to work with each of Pittsburgh’s 88 neighborhoods on at least one community development project. That desire, and many of his ideas for neighborhood revitalization and city growth, stem from serving as executive director of Renew Pittsburgh, a volunteer organization he co-founded in 2007.
Shifting his weight in the chair, he returns to the North Shore: It’s unfortunate that development there has taken place in a way that doesn’t respect the communities it impacts, he says. “I’d like to see some of those dollars flow to the community,” he says of major development projects.
North Shore development projects have been controversial, with organizations like Northside United demanding a community benefits agreement from the developers, and other organizations criticizing Northside United’s methods of protest.
The business attorney from Squirrel Hill isn’t taking sides, though. “It doesn’t always have to manifest in terms of a CBA,” he says.
“The problem is the mayor’s pro-development views. There’s a middle ground, and that’s where the mayor should be. And it’s hard work, but that’s the kind of work we elect mayors to do.”
Part of Acklin’s neighborhood investment plan involves shrinking the Urban Redevelopment Authority into a “smaller, more nimble” URA that will focus efforts on small business rather than corporate development.
The money Acklin would pull out of the URA would go into the city’s severely under-capitalized pension fund, leaving about half of the agency’s current $417 million in assets untouched.
Although he wants to cut it in half, he believes a smaller URA will serve the city better. Currently, he says, the URA is too big and dominates rather than assists with development.
“When you have that subsidized development here, it crowds out other developers.”
Opening a small business in Pittsburgh presents entrepreneurs with many challenges, because the permit process is decentralized and confusing, Acklin says.
To streamline the process, Acklin would create a small business permitting office where a liaison would help owners through every step of the process. He believes having all business-related transactions take place under one roof would help make Pittsburgh an even more attractive location for new businesses.
Challenger Harris would also like to create a streamlined business permit office called the Office of Small Business.
Acklin criticizes the mayor’s proposal to tax college students and hospital bills to make up for a budget deficit, saying, “It’s not the best way to roll down the welcome mat to our prospective future citizens.”
Instead, he would like to tax nonprofit organizations like UPMC, which brings in $8 billion in revenue, according to information it provided to U.S. News and World Report, and does not currently have to pay any taxes.
Another aspect of investing in neighborhoods, Acklin says, is improving communication between city police and the community. “I want officers out of their cars and building relationships with neighbors and community groups.”
Many neighborhoods do not have organized block watch programs, and Acklin wants to create a program in each community that works with the police force to keep city streets safe.
Along with fostering community involvement in neighborhood safety, Acklin has a $17 million plan to hire 200 more police officers over four years. The money would come from government grants, moving city government to paperless records and transactions and eliminating wasteful spending.
Harris has similar ideas about getting police out of their cars and onto the streets, only he believes that 200 additional officers is unrealistic.
Pittsburgh must constantly compete with the suburbs to retain residents and families, and Acklin, speaking with conviction, says that making the streets safer and investing in local businesses will bring population growth.
But that won’t be enough. Similar to incumbent Mayor Ravenstahl, he believes that long-term, the city and the county must merge. Acklin’s plan differs from Ravenstahl’s on one key issue, though: He wants to integrate all of Allegheny County’s municipalities into the City of Pittsburgh, similar to Indianapolis’s city-county government, formed in 1970.
Ravenstahl’s plan would merge the city and county government offices, but retain municipalities outside the city.
Acklin’s reasons for consolidating municipalities include wanting those who live in the suburbs but work and attend sporting events in the city to help pay the costs of maintaining the city infrastructure they use every day.
Merging the suburbs with the city would be hard, Acklin admits, because it would most likely mean a tax increase for those living outside the city.
“In effect right now they’re getting a free ride,” he says. “In order to overcome that we need to show the suburbs that can run this city well.”
Acklin leans forward in his chair. It looks like there are more questions than answers, but he believes that if the mayor gets out in the streets and works with Pittsburghers, they can solve any problem.
Plus, he says, “I think every neighborhood has stuff to offer. We have a strong future here based in technology.”