Bruce Katz, who makes his living by making big ideas accessible to the likes of me, was telling a roomful of prosperous Pittsburghers Wednesday that we're sitting pretty if we play our cards right.
Some of those things we complain about -- trying to find a parking spot, for instance -- are actually reasons for optimism.
"The rest of the country wants what you have in Oakland," said Mr. Katz, the co-author of "The Metropolitan Revolution," a book that says local and state leaders, not national ones, will be making the important decisions in the 21st century.
Our unusually high concentration of jobs in the center city -- about 25 percent of all jobs in this metro area are within three miles of Downtown -- gives Pittsburgh that "bump and mingle effect" that companies like, Mr. Katz said. But the "total game changer" will be Marcellus Shale. Pittsburgh has to figure out how to make that wellspring of natural gas the platform for product innovation rather than an end in itself, he said.
We have to be smart about how we do it, but he sees it this way: North Dakota is simply "an extraction state," but Pittsburgh, with the brainpower of Carnegie Mellon and the other universities, should be able to parlay cheap energy into a manufacturing renaissance.
It won't be like it was in Big Steel's heyday. The new vanguard will be in advanced, clean technology, said Mr. Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But affordable energy in Pittsburgh's backyard should mitigate Asia's old advantage in wage differential.
Among the audience of roughly 35 at the Rivers Club for this breakfast meeting of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh was Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Naturally, he liked hearing all this. If Mr. Katz is right about a new economy where "metro areas will lead and states and the federal government will follow," county leaders such as Mr. Fitzgerald will be out front.
He also has advocated leasing natural gas drilling rights under Deer Lakes Park, as long as the well pads aren't on county property. That project could bring an estimated $2 million to $4 million at the signing, and $700,000 in royalties after that, Mr. Fitzgerald has said. He'd like to leverage that kind of energy into manufacturing. Pittsburgh has gone from Big Steel and its all-eggs-in-one-basket vulnerability to a diversified "all of the above" economy, he said.
But for all its competitive advantages, Pittsburgh faces stiff competition, Mr. Katz warned. Southeastern states are lining up to attract Asian and other foreign manufacturers.
"Get a passport and find out your natural trading partners," Mr. Katz advises metropolitan leaders.
He's one of the few guys who, in a single presentation, can go from complimenting former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell to the late Republican U.S. Sen. John Heinz to current Republican Rep. Paul Ryan. That said, there is no reason to associate the words "smart and strategic" with much of anything our national government is doing these days, he said.
"They have literally, like Elvis, left the building."
The future may be somewhat Darwinian, he allowed, as the metro areas stake out their turf. But more value will be put on "density and distinctiveness" and it will be important for state governments to allow more autonomy to their metro areas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is among those moving in that direction, he said.
When asked if Pittsburgh's abundance of water would be an advantage as the Sun Belt grows increasingly parched, Mr. Katz said that all depended on what Pittsburgh does with this asset.
"Scarcity leads to innovation," he said, and he expects breakthroughs in smart water usage from cities in the U.S., China and the Middle East. No Pittsburgher can be smug about how damp it can be around here until we figure out how to leverage that asset.
"When I look around this place," Mr. Katz said, "all I see is opportunity."
He advised Pittsburghers to "heed the advice of that great American philosopher, Dolly Parton: Find out who you are, and do it."
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM