Learning From Pittsburgh
Our nicknames: Motown, The Motor City, or Auto Capital of the World. They all indicate one of our past strengths…and one of our current challenges. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was known as Steel Town for decades. But that city has reinvented itself. Detroit 2020 visited Pittsburgh and found there were lessons we could learn.
From dusk until dawn, the Pittsburgh skyline is absolutely gorgeous and quite impressive considering the massive architectural jewels have been erected from the ashes of a town once known the world over for two things, the Pittsburgh Steelers and steel manufacturing.
Rob Stephany of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh told us, “We started losing our competitive edge in the 50s with the total collapse of the entire industry by the 70’s or 80s.” The death of steel caused a mass exodus of families. According to Stephany, “In 1983, the average unemployment rate for our 10 county area was 18.3%. Today it’s under 8%.”
The story mirrors the Motor City where a number of factors including a downturn in the economy depleted our population. “Both cities lost about 50% over the last 50 years,” Stephany told us.
Pittsburgh has demonstrated resilience and a willingness to act. City leaders, donors with deep pockets and the brainpower of universities drew up a battle plan for reinvention.
Dennis Yablonsky is the CEO of the Allegheny Conference. He says, “Like Detroit, we were once a place that was heavily reliant on one industry sector that when it had trouble affected the entire region. Today our economy is very balanced and very diversified and as a result we’re able to weather some of these economic downturns.” Diversification began by zeroing in on five sectors of the economy: advanced manufacturing, financial services, energy, information technology and health care and life sciences.
One example of positive change is the 48 acres of land that used to be a US Steel mill. It had been sitting barren singe 1967. Then in 2009 it became the Pittsburgh Technology Center and brings in $1million dollars of tax revenue annually.
With 33 colleges and universities, including the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh has become known as the college city. 100-thousand students pass through.
Yablonsky says, “Our new sectors – the bio-technology sector, the information technology sectors which virtually didn’t exist 30 years ago, they’ve been created from whole cloth based on having world class institutions.” With Wayne State University, U of D Mercy, Marygrove and a whole list of community colleges, the Motor City is not too shabby on the education front.
The financial sector in Pittsburgh is booming. Two of the country’s largest banks are headquartered there. And Pittsburgh has a health system ranked among the nation’s top ten. As in Pittsburgh, health care is working in Detroit’s favor. Detroit Council President Charles Pugh pointed out, “Certainly health care is one of our strengths. In fact they’ve been our only growth industry in the last 15 years.”
Forbes magazine calls Pittsburgh the nation’s “Most Livable City” and signs of life are everywhere. According to Yablonski, Pittsburgh is now a first class place to live, “And that makes it easier to attract businesses, which makes it easier to attract people.”
While in Pittsburgh, we visited South Side works. It offers everything from upscale restaurants and a lot of retail. In the 1960s the 123 acres were owned by a steel company. Today the entire area is the heart and soul of the retail industry right in the city.
Older neighborhoods are being transformed and that’s creating better home values. Three new sports arenas were built in the heart of Pittsburgh within the last three years. They’re beacons of light and magnets for people. You can come into town and park, have dinner and walk to any of the arenas.
Little Caesar’s founder and Red Wing owner, Mike Ilitch has the same idea for the Motor City – especially with talk of a new home for the Red Wings and Pistons in downtown Detroit.
Pittsburgh’s amazing reinvention attracted the eye of city leaders in Detroit. Council President Pugh took a group to Pittsburgh to visit. Pugh says, “One thing I love about what Pittsburgh has done: they’ve gone from being a town where steel was 70% of their economy and now it’s less than 20%. Experts say the same must be done in the auto industry. Battery technology and electric vehicles are just the start. According to Council President Pugh, “As car production technology changes so should the companies we’re attracting here and incentivizing to move here to Detroit.”
Trade and commerce are two other key areas Detroit is looking to for economic growth. Pugh told us the Ambassador Bridge has more commerce every day than any other border crossing in the world.
Back in Pittsburgh, Yablonsky says, “The problems developed over a long time here and the solutions took a long period of time. So you just have to set your targets, work together and be persistent about it and you’ll see incremental progress, but it takes a while to get through all this.”