Pittsburgh’s Next Opportunity

Pittsburghs-Next-OpportunityComeback City. Best Place to Live. Best to Visit…It’s a good feeling when your hometown receives so much attention. Living in Pittsburgh inspires a sense of pride and as I travel around the country, I am always happy to tell people about the highlights of our region’s transformation. That travel though has also opened my eyes to the fact that we are not doing enough to retain those titles. There are issues in our community, our economy and our civic and social infrastructure that must be addressed if we want to wear the badge of pride into the next decade.

A recent report from the Brookings Institute notes that the Pittsburgh metro area’s economy is lagging many of the world’s larger cities. The Brookings report utilizes two variables to develop their rankings — GDP and Employment change. The Pittsburgh region is positioned at 253 of 300 in a global index with Austin (38), Houston (39), Raleigh (41), Fresno (49), Dallas (63), Baton Rouge (65), Oklahoma City (66), Las Vegas (68), Grand Rapids (69), San Jose (72), Orlando (73), Jacksonville (83), Nashville (86), Denver (95), Knoxville (98), and Atlanta (99) all positioned in the top 100.

Some articles on the report have noted that several of the cities mentioned have benefited from the strength of the energy industry in the U.S. While that may be true in some cases, I think it is an oversimplified view and one that does not work in several of the cities named.

In 2014, Fourth Economy provided consulting support for Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative. The Regional Cities Initiative seeks to strength the quality of Indiana’s communities and spur population and economic growth. It is a visionary approach and one that, the more we spoke with leaders of many of the cities named in the Brookings report, made me realize that we must do more in our own regional city of Pittsburgh.

There were several common success factors that drove regional transformation, many of which can help Pittsburgh retain and build upon its many successes For this post I will address one fundamental success factor – a starting point in many ways that helps a region define what it aspires to be. The cities we studied all have a defined regional plan for economic development and quality of place. In most cases they first developed their plan during an economic low point or stagnation as their business and public leaders recognized that the status quo was not acceptable and that regional collaboration was the key to transforming their community. Pittsburgh has an advantage of being at a high point, but regional collaboration towards a common vision is no less important if we want to maintain and grow our economy.

The Pittsburgh region needs to develop a comprehensive and inclusive strategy that defines what we want to be recognized for in 2020 and beyond. I would like to see a Pittsburgh region that:

  • Develops a clear path for how we can attract not just 20,000 but 200,000 new residents to our region in the next decade.*
  • Ensures opportunities for existing firms to excel and a community that welcomes entrepreneurs of all ages and cultures to make the Pittsburgh region their home base.
  • Redevelops our blighted communities using smart incentives to create affordable, sustainable communities that allow our 80,000 neighbors currently living in struggling neighborhoods to achieve a better future.
  • Demands health care infrastructure that is patient-focused and holds non-profit health care providers accountable to providing community benefits.
  • Invests in an education system that achieves excellence and is a draw instead of a barrier to attracting new families.
  • Creates strategic opportunity from our region’s resources, while maintaining a vision on developing a diversified and sustainable energy strategy for the region.  [ currently underway ]

[color-box]*When Mayor Bill Peduto stated that he wanted to see Pittsburgh grow by 20,000 new residents by 2025, I heard critics commenting that such a goal was not attainable. For a region that lost around 400,000 people I was quick to disagree. Then on trips to Austin and Denver we learned that new residents are moving in at a significant clip – 110 and 139 per day respectively or 40,000 and 50,000 PER YEAR. So yes, 20,000 is a really low benchmark and one that we need to reconsider![/color-box]

These are just a few of my desires for a Pittsburgh 2020 plan. Of course there are amazing organizations working hard on all of these issues already; however, these issues are regional in nature and need to be aligned and supported on a regional level. These desires are informed by our work throughout the country and our observations of areas that were not satisfied with the status quo. You may be surprised to hear an economic development professional claiming that addressing blight and improving schools are economic development priorities, but our experience shows that quality-of-place and talent attraction are what drove economic growth in those high-performing regional cities. I welcome your thoughts and observations.