When family researches 19 cities for best place to relocate, Pittsburgh wins

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Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Rob Goodman, left, plays with daughters Suzanna, 8, and Isabel, 10. Mr. Goodman shares custody of the children with his ex-wife, Debbie DeLong, second from right, who is now married to Jim DeLong, right.
By Joyce Gannon
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Debbie and Jim DeLong had been married three weeks when Hurricane Katrina ravaged their New Orleans neighborhood and forced them to evacuate to Houston.

After sneaking back into the storm-battered city a few times to check on their house, located five blocks from Tulane University, the couple decided that ongoing restoration and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans would be too disruptive to their lives and to Mrs. DeLong's two young daughters.

"There were too many signals that we didn't want to wait 10 or 15 years for our quality of life to resume," said Mrs. DeLong, 43, a former Tulane faculty member who is now assistant professor of marketing at Chatham College.

So the couple, along with Mrs. DeLong's ex-husband, who also lived in New Orleans and has shared custody of the girls, agreed to find a new place where all three adults could pursue their careers and raise the children in a stable, culturally rich environment with high-quality schools. Their search brought them to Pittsburgh, the winner of a statistical analysis Mrs. DeLong conducted of 19 cities to determine the best new place to call home.

"First and foremost, it had to be within driving distance to all the grandparents," said Mrs. DeLong, whose parents live outside of Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia. Her former husband's parents live near Philadelphia. The result: All 19 cities were approximately a six-hour drive from both families.

With that out of the way, she conferred with her husband and her former spouse, Rob Goodman, to determine other major criteria they would use in selecting a new hometown. The most critical factors, they agreed, were job opportunities for both of the DeLongs and for Mr. Goodman; a strong Jewish community for Mrs. DeLong, Mr. Goodman and their daughters; a reasonable commute time with low traffic congestion; affordable housing and cost of living; and a good public school system for the girls. Secondary criteria included culture and the arts; a low crime rate; and attractiveness of the region.

A self-described "data geek," Mrs. DeLong scoured the Internet for Realtor sites, Census data and other sources of information for each of the 19 cities while she lived in an apartment in suburban Houston for four months after Katrina.

Meanwhile, her husband continued to work during some of that time as vice president of marketing for a Texas utility company, and Mr. Goodman continued his job in New Orleans as general manager of the Pontchartrain Center, a sports and events venue. Her daughters, who are now 10 and 8, stayed with the DeLongs in Houston until the couple and the girls returned to New Orleans in December 2005 so that Mrs. DeLong could resume her teaching job at Tulane when the university reopened.

The DeLongs were able to go back to their house near Tulane because water damage was limited to their finished basement and storage area. Mr. Goodman, who had returned to New Orleans 10 days after the hurricane to help reopen the Pontchartrain Center, lived in a trailer on his property's front lawn while Katrina-related repairs were under way at his house.

By March 2006, Mrs. DeLong had completed her data analysis, "And the numbers indicated Pittsburgh was the direction we were going." Though it wasn't a factor in the analysis, it didn't hurt that Pittsburgh is only a couple hours' drive from Cleveland, where Mr. DeLong's ex-wife lives with his three sons, ages 18, 14 and 11.

Rounding out the DeLong's top 10 cities behind Pittsburgh were Cincinnati; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; Indianapolis; Atlanta; New York; Cleveland; and Charlotte, N.C. The bottom nine after Charlotte were Columbus, Ohio; Richmond, Va.; Louisville, Ky.; Harrisburg; Hagerstown, Md.; Scranton/Wilkes Barre; Buffalo; Lexington, Ky.; and, in last place, Wilmington, Del.

Once Pittsburgh became their destination, all three adults began job hunting. They did not visit Pittsburgh or any other city during the search process.

"Nobody had that kind of money," said Mrs. DeLong. "This was a data-driven approach."

Mr. Goodman was the first to land a position here when SMG, the company that manages the Pontchartrain Center, offered him a job as assistant general manager and director of marketing at Mellon Arena, another property in its portfolio.

"It's worked out swimmingly," said Mr. Goodman, 44, who moved here in May 2006. "The move was really not for me or Debbie but to give our girls a quality of life.

"Even in post-Katrina New Orleans, I could have survived. I had a job. But when I looked at what [New Orleans] was after the storm, I thought there was something to be said for a nice, normal life. My girls have a wonderful environment up here."

Mr. Goodman rents a house in Bethel Park a couple of miles from where his ex-wife and daughters live in Upper St. Clair. He plans to buy a house once he sells his New Orleans property, which has been restored and is currently leased.

Mr. DeLong last spring invested in a franchise business that arranges financing for small- and medium-sized businesses and then came to Pittsburgh to scout for homes while his wife was finishing the spring semester at Tulane. "While it was important for me to find a place to launch my business, a lot of the analysis was done for the benefit of Debbie and Rob making joint decisions as parents," said Mr. DeLong.

His wife flew up for one day in April to look at houses with him, and they agreed to buy the Upper St. Clair property. They sold their New Orleans house within days of listing it and moved in July.

Mrs. DeLong, who had been in touch with local colleges about teaching positions before the move, worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh last fall and then joined Chatham full-time.

"Pittsburgh gets a bad rap generally from people from Pittsburgh," said Mr. DeLong, who was born nearby in Steubenville, Ohio, and grew up in Wheeling, W.Va. "But while some things here are shrinking, some things are growing. There's a strong technology factor and colleges and universities, and proximity to other population areas. I've found Pittsburgh to be even healthier than I thought it was going to be. And it's great that it's near my boys."

Mrs. DeLong misses what she called the "unique aura" of New Orleans "that makes you feel like you're living in a different country."

"It has a lot of diversity," she said. "Everybody is a little eccentric. It's colorful and so is the music and the food."

While her mortgage payment is about 30 percent less than what she paid in New Orleans, her winter gas bills were considerably higher. "But the overall expenses are what we thought they would be."

She feels extremely comfortable in her new neighborhood where the girls found friends almost immediately after they arrived. Now that they are settled into school and have joined Temple Emanuel of South Hills, "We're feeling like we have family here, though we don't."

One of the biggest advantages of the move, she said, is that, "We don't have to buy plane tickets anymore. That's huge."

"We're in many respects the antithesis of many divorced couples," said Mr. Goodman. "We made a conscious effort to take the high road and do everything we can for the betterment of our kids."

David J. Phillip, Associated Press
Homes are surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina near downtown New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2005.
Click photo for larger image.

Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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