Walt D’Alessio: Influential Leadership in Urban Economic Development

By Kenneth Dobson

WALT D’ALESSIO brought a new dimension of leadership to IEDC through his professional private-sector business approach to economic development. He was a brilliant no-nonsense, transactional economic development mind, quick wit, great sense of humor, and wise counselor in matters of business, politics, socioeconomics, and urban economic development problem-solving ingenuity.

Where other great CUED/IEDC leaders brought credible public sector leadership to the emerging profession of urban economic development, Walt brought more of a public-private partnership perspective to the fiscal and economic development growth of cities. He always emphasized that urban economic development was a public purpose, undertaken with the private sector, for the public benefit.

His hugely successful leadership of PIDC in Philadelphia quickly resonated and translated into a new popular generation of public-private partnerships designed to help mayors and public sector leaders better engage with each other. Walt’s efforts inspired better mutual understandings, relationships, and commitments between public and private executives based on each other’s respective responsibilities, fiscal and economic situations, operating statements, and balance sheet requirements.
Walt was a master at creating the public-private economic development climate that quickly caught the imagination, buy-in, and commitments of mayors, city managers, corporate executives, and reputable commercial and industrial real estate developers alike. He never ceased to amaze me by the ease with which he seemed to capture the interest and attention of senior-level public and corporate executives as if to say that when Walt enters the room and starts to talk, everybody intensely listens.

As newly minted Director of CUED’s Community Advisory Services (CAS) Division and Chairman Ed DeLuca’s protégé, I had the uniquely awesome privilege and pleasure of learning from two of the giants in the emerging field of urban economic development. Ed and I engaged Walt often in CUED-CAS Panel problem-solving exercises, which were in service to cities requesting CUED capacity-building assistance.

The most remarkable and memorable was the panel visit to Detroit, Michigan in 1978 with Ed and Walt for sessions with Mayor Coleman A. Young, Jim Roche, former Chairman of General Motors, Lynn Townsend, former Chairman of the Chrysler Corporation, Bob Surdam, former Chairman, National Bank of Detroit, Art Seder, former Chairman of American Natural Resources Corporation and Michigan Consolidated Gas Company, Walt McCarthy, former Chairman, Detroit Edison, and Peter Stroh, former Chairman of Stroh Brewery. There were also other titans of business, industry, labor, neighborhood, faith-based, and real estate development participants in this inclusive and collaborative local economic development process. Included were Doug Frazier (UAW), Mark Stepp (UAW), and Tom Turner (AFL-CIO) and a host of other VIPs from the higher education and the civic community. It was then that I began to grasp the full gravity, scope, magnitude, and significance of those special moments.

The result of those three magnificent days was the birth of the Detroit Economic Development Growth Corporation (DEGC), which still functions as the city’s primary public-private economic development delivery system. With Walt’s tremendous influence, the DEGC was patterned and structured, in many ways, after his PIDC with certain modifications and adjustments to reflect Detroit’s unique situations and circumstances at that time.

Subsequently, I was proud to have been selected as a DEGC Vice President during the formative years of this organization’s life with the added responsibilities of Executive Vice President of the city’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) as time progressed. It was during those times in my young professional life that I realized and received my urban economic development baptism, anointing, wings, and rites of passage from two of the pioneers and legends of the profession – Ed DeLuca and Walt D’Alessio. It is to them, primarily, that I owe my lifetime achievements of excellence in public, private, college and university practices in urban regional economic development during the following four-plus decades.

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