Pittsburgh ranked in nation's Top 20 on Brookings Institution list

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Pittsburgh beat Detroit again, but to be fair, so did every other one of the top 100 cities in the country in the Brookings Institution listing on the strength of local economies.

The City of Champions ranked 18th, which put it in the tier of the 20 economically strongest metropolitan areas.

The city was behind such places as San Antonio (first); Tulsa, Okla. (ninth); and Des Moines, Iowa (14th). It was just behind Harrisburg (17th).

Pittsburgh bested New Haven, Conn., edging out the home of Yale University, which came in 19th.

What the authors of the "MetroMonitor" found is that areas hit by declines in manufacturing and the bursting of the housing bubble are feeling more pain in the current recession than areas that are strong in health care, education and government.

Hence, Detroit (100th); Toledo, Ohio, (92nd); and Youngstown, Ohio, (90th) are mixed in with other of the weakest performing metropolitan areas such as Las Vegas (89th); Fresno, Calif., (94th); and Bradenton, Fla. (99th). Las Vegas and Bradenton and Orlando, Fla., (79th) have each experienced the one-two punch of the bursting of the housing bubble and the weakening of the tourism trade.

Pittsburgh, Boston (30th) and New Haven have relatively stable economies and for the same reason: They are centers for both higher education and health care.

"The most interesting thing about Pittsburgh, and the reason it is doing so well is that its economy is based on 'eds' and 'meds,' and parts of manufacturing that are not hugely affected by auto manufacturing," said Howard Wial, one of the authors of the Brookings study.

He said education and health care "are fairly stable" for local economies. "They don't go into a tailspin when there's a recession."

The Brookings study also showed that centers of government and military spending, such as El Paso, Texas, (11th); Washington, D.C. (13th); Harrisburg; and Honolulu (34th) also are stronger economically than other cities. Mr. Wial, who spent part of his career working for a Harrisburg think tank said the state Legislature and all of the staff associated with state government has protected the city, as state governments have moderated the effects of the recession on Albany, N.Y. (28th); and Columbia, S.C. (27th).

The study found two distinctly different "Manufacturing Belts."

There is the rust belt of Michigan and Ohio, which has suffered under the contraction of the auto industry, and there is another sector of manufacturing that includes aerospace around Hartford, Conn. (24th); photonics, such as optics, lasers and fiber optics in Rochester, N.Y. (20th); and plastics in Scranton (22nd).

Rochester is interesting, he said, because while it has been known for the massive layoffs at Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb, most of their downsizing occurred before the current recession, and the smaller companies have stepped up in photonics and optics there.

Pittsburgh was one of 38 cities in the study that did not see a decline in housing prices from the first quarter of 2008 to the same quarter in 2009.

The study reported that Pittsburgh's prices rose by 2 percent, which placed it 19th in the rankings for that metric.

The rising housing prices have also, in part, protected Pittsburgh from the foreclosure crisis.

The city ranks ninth in the country for the lowest rate of foreclosures, with only 1.06 of every 1,000 homes owned by mortgage companies.

Mr. Wial said that while every city has seen some loss in its gross metropolitan product, he was astonished when five of the top 10 metro areas were in Texas -- all have strong energy industries, particularly oil and gas.

Detroit was dead last as the weakest metropolitan area with a drop in gross metropolitan product of 10.1 percent from the peak of production before this recession with an accompanying 12.3 percent drop in employment, which included a 6 percent drop in employment over the last year and a 9.3 percent drop in housing prices from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of this year.

On the bright side for Detroit residents, at least they won't feel compelled to spend a bunch of money on any Stanley Cup memorabilia.

Pittsburgh is taking care of that for them.

Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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