Walter D’Alessio: Leadership Personified

By Joan Fuchsman

What qualities comprise a leader? Innovative thinking? Wisdom? Generosity? Kindness? Upon hearing from former chairs of the Council for Urban Economic Development (CUED), now called the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), you quickly realize that Walter D’Alessio is the embodiment of leadership.

The International Economic Development Council is the membership organization for those professionals who are trying to grow local economies likely working for economic development agencies or public-private partnership organizations. Economic developers try to create, retain, and expand jobs and develop local tax bases. The association is Washington-based, and Walter has had a significant imprint on the organization, according to their President and CEO, Jeffrey Finkle.

Walter’s relationship with the IEDC began in the 1960s when a group of planning directors of three eastern US cities–New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia–met to discuss ways to develop policies that would rebuild urban economies. This group was the beginning of the formation of the CUED. Walter D’Alessio, representing Philadelphia, was one of the leaders who helped create the ideas that revived cities into the centers of urban economies.

Cities had run into hard times. The Eisenhower Freeway System created our new interstate highways, and those roads opened real estate outside of our central cities and attracted jobs and capital out of our cities. You add to that court-ordered school desegregation, the riots of 1967, and the death of Martin Luther King in 1968 and cities were hemorrhaging economic vitality.

Affiliated with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) for 44 years, Walter served as CUED/IEDC Chair from 1978 to 1980. He achieved a reputation for innovative thinking and acting, bringing a public-private partnership perspective to the fiscal and economic development growth of cities. Over the years, Walter has been a friend, mentor, and inspiration to former IEDC Chairmen who are effusive in their praise.

“I considered Walter a mentor to me in my early economic development days and beyond as I matured in the profession,” says James Hankla, IEDC Chair,1982-1984. “I met him as the HUB COUNCIL (Helping Urban Businesses) was evolving into CUED. I visited his operation in Philadelphia and copied the structure of his organization as closely as I was able. I consulted with him from time to time, and he always shared freely.” As a result of working with Walter, Hankla took back many of Walter’s ideas with him to a variety of positions in California and believes that is what helped him ensure the establishment of economic development as an organizational priority as public works or planning. According to Hankla, “Walter was the spiritual Godfather for all those economic development efforts which included the LAEDC. Simply put, Walter is a genius of public organizational, financial, and political strategy, and we are all in his debt.”

Former CUED/IEDC Chair Gary Conley,1984-1986, acclaims Walter with giving CUED enormous credibility in its early years. “PIDC was the largest and most impactful organization of its kind in the country. It was our best example of what a successful urban development program looked like and the benefits such programs could provide America’s cities. It was proof positive that cities could create major public sector development organizations and execute economic development investment programs that produced meaningful results. Walter was a powerful and articulate spokesperson for the value such organizations and programs could bring to our cities and to the people they serve at a time when the future of America’s cities was much in doubt. Overstating the importance of his contribution to the practice of urban economic development and his service to the cause of making our cities better places to live and work for everyone is not possible. For beginning practitioners like myself at the time, he was awe-inspiring, and we all hoped that someday we might grow up and be just like him. This thought, of course, was naïve because there is, and always will be, just one and only one Walter D’Alessio.”

Tom Blanchard, CUED/IEDC Chair 1986-1988, also speaks to Walter’s generosity and wisdom. “My boss, Vincent Thomas, the Mayor of Norfolk, had become an admirer of the papers that the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) began publishing and encouraged me to get active in the organization, including attending meetings and seminars. That is where I got to know Walt, who helped me develop the skills needed to analyze and solve urban economic issues. Walt was a major player in the thought process that formed the body of skills and knowledge that has revived cities into the centers of urban economies. Walt reiterated that if economic developers are going to implement new and dynamic economic development strategies successfully, they must think and act beyond political borders, acting regionally to take full advantage of economic development opportunities. Collaboration and working horizontally to meet the many challenges that the world presents in the New Economy is essential. There are always new conditions presenting themselves, and there must always be space made to grow and to meet these essential challenges.”

Former CUED/IEDC Chair John Claypool, 1994-1996, always admired Walter’s support of Philadelphia’s young leaders. “I had the good fortune of calling Walt a friend and followed him as chair of the International Economic Development Council several years later. At the time I was the President of Greater Philadelphia First which was the Philadelphia region’s business recruiting entity. What I will always be appreciative of Walt for was his support and encouragement of bringing young people up through the ranks of economic development. Walt certainly looked after me as I was rising in the profession in Philadelphia, but he had that impact on people all over the country.”

Finkle added, “When people are natural leaders, like Walt, the willingness to make things happen drives them. Walt has helped lead and raise money for three annual conferences in Philadelphia. In 2007 he convened the pioneers of urban economic development to share what worked and what did not work from this history of revitalizing cities”.

It is nearly impossible to imagine the IEDC without Walter D’Alessio and harder still to reconcile where economic development would be without his knowledge, pioneering thinking, and farsightedness. Luckily, we do not have to do either.

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