Keystone Edge is spotlighting the state’s mayors, passionate Pennsylvanians who preside over everywhere from small towns to hip suburbs to thriving cities. Next up is Mayor Matthew Pacifico of Altoona, a central PA city of almost 50,000 people experiencing a downtown renaissance.
Keystone Edge: How did you find your way to public service?
Mayor Matthew Pacifico: I never had any previous experience in politics or government — I was the operations manager of my family’s bakery in Altoona. It was 2013 and the city’s first year in Act 47 [a state program that provides funding and technical assistance to financially distressed local governments]. There were no Republicans on the ballot for mayor at the time and somebody said to me, “You should consider running for mayor.” I laughed it off. And then a few days later, somebody else said that I should run. I thought, well, that’s two people in the same week, that’s got to be a sign or something.
I decided on a Friday night that I was [going to run], but the courthouse was already closed for the weekend. The petitions were due on Tuesday. I went as soon as they opened at 8 a.m. on Monday, got the petition, and had a couple people help me circulate them. I had to get 100 registered Republicans — that were also city residents — to sign and I basically had one day to do it. By 10:30 p.m. that night, we had 140 or 150 signatures. Then I googled “What does a mayor do?” because I had no idea (laughs).
The city was making some great progress. I was developing my own ideas and policies. I wasn’t ready to walk away from that.Mayor Matthew Pacifico
When I first got elected, it was a part-time position. A Government Study Commission was formed. They met for about 18 months and drafted a “home rule charter.” Within that charter, the mayor went from a part-time position to a full-time position. So I had to run for reelection two years into my term, even though it was a four-year term. I had a tough decision to make — I had to decide if I wanted to walk away from my family’s business. The city was making some great progress. I was developing my own ideas and policies. I wasn’t ready to walk away from that. Luckily my family was very supportive of me pursuing the full-time position.
What’s on your wish list for Altoona?
Something that has been on my radar for a while now is seeing Altoona become more walkable and more bikeable. We’re doing what we can to [draw] a younger workforce and amenities like that help make your city attractive.
If you could snap your fingers and solve one problem, what would it be?
Blight. A couple years ago, we formed a Blight Task Force to draft a Comprehensive Blight Strategy Plan. We recently created a land bank in Altoona. I want to continue to make positive changes in terms of cleaning up our neighborhoods — seeing people have a sense of pride in their neighborhoods again.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as mayor so far?
Probably the biggest one was helping the city get out of Act 47. We were the fastest municipality in the Commonwealth to ever accomplish that feat.
What would surprise someone about the job of being mayor?
I think a lot of people think that because I’m a full-time mayor that I have control over everything that happens in the city. Our home rule charter is not drafted that way. We have a full-time city manager who is in charge of all the day-to-day operations and in charge of personnel.
When the study commission drafted the charter, their vision for the mayor was to have somebody out in the community, being seen, being approachable. I deal with a lot of constituent issues and I work with departments to try to find a resolution to those issues. The study commission also wanted the mayor to be kind of a lobbyist for the city, to be able to go to Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., and represent Altoona there.
Can you describe your ideal weekend in Altoona?
I like when there’s a lot going on in the city, a lot of different events that I can take my sons to. But if it happens to be a weekend when there’s nothing going on, I just try to enjoy whatever time I can with them. There’s a new wood-fired pizzeria in downtown Altoona. I took my youngest son for the first time on Friday and he fell in love with it. Downtown is really experiencing a renaissance. It’s pretty awesome to see.
Can you describe Altoona in one sentence?
Even in the midst of trials and setbacks, Altoona has remained true to the hardworking values that helped build this city, and through perseverance and a willingness to follow its dreams, it has resulted in a city that has sprouted new life.