Bill Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference said Pittsburgh and surrounding communities "skew a little older" and are "a little less diverse" than a lot of places.
But these widely accepted truths about the region also threaten its economic vitality. Mr. Flanagan points out that the cohort of 45- to 65-year-olds outnumbers the next youngest cohort by 144,000 people, which could spell disaster for the labor market as the older generation begins to retire.
"What people may not appreciate is how big of a competitive challenge this is going to be," he said.
Mayor take steps to attract more immigrants to Pittsburgh
Mayor William Peduto announced initiative to attract more immigrants to Pittsburgh. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/28/2014)
Interactive: Immigrant mapping of Pittsburgh
On Wednesday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Mr. Flanagan attempted to drive home the necessity of immigration, saying it was not only desirable, but necessary to sustain the region. They took part in the city's launch of Welcoming Pittsburgh, an initiative to make the city more attractive to immigrants.
"This city is going to change dramatically over the next 20 years ... because our economy is going to be picking up and people are going to be looking to make their home in Pittsburgh," he said at a news conference yesterday at the Kingsley Association in Larimer. "Pittsburgh's economic survival depends on it."
Mr. Peduto says it is his plan to bring 20,000 new residents to the city in the next decade, and immigrants will be a part of that. While the city was built on immigrants, Mr. Peduto said, it's gone through "a freeze" over the last three decades, when immigration has dramatically slowed. In a look at the 40 largest American metropolitan statistical areas, prepared by demographer Chris Briem, the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area came in next to last in net immigration for 2012 and 2013.
And, as Mr. Flanagan pointed out, population loss could gradually undo the region's economic growth. If the region fails to attract significant numbers of migrants or immigrants, "we're going to have a hard time sustaining this economy as we know it today," he said. "It's not a crisis. ... This is something that's going to unfold over the next decade, decade and a half."
Betty Cruz, the city's nonprofit and faith-based manager, is the daughter of Cuban immigrants herself and will lead the effort. The initiative is in its infancy and will start with a 25-member advisory committee to get input from the community and to design policies and goals for the initiative. Those interested in applying to serve on the committee should apply by June 20 online at http://pittsburghpa.gov/personnel/jobs/pittsburgh_advisory_council.
As part of the initiative, the city will recruit immigrants for its newest Civic Leadership Academy, a program in which residents get a crash course in the operations of city government. Ms. Cruz also said Pittsburgh plans to make its sister city program -- which facilitates contacts with cities in other countries -- more robust.
Ms. Cruz said it’s modeled after efforts in other cities, like Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired Adolfo Hernandez to lead the New Americans Initiative. That also drew on recommendations from a 50-person committee that contained representatives from the business and faith community, as well as social service providers.
The result was programs to provide information for immigrants interested in starting businesses, and creating information centers for immigrants interested in becoming U.S. citizens. It also led to an expanded city ordinance that prohibits officials from inquiring about the immigration status of those seeking city services and bans police from detaining undocumented immigrants unless there's a warrant for their arrest.
Pittsburgh has also found inspiration from Dayton, Ohio, a city hard-hit by the recession. The city in recent years hired "welcoming coordinators" to link newcomers -- which include Mexicans and refugees from Africa and Turkey -- to social services and to ease the transition to the small Midwestern city. And it created a policy discouraging police from inquiring about people's immigration status unless they're accused of serious crimes.
Mayor Nan Whaley said immigration is one the best hopes for "legacy cities" like Dayton, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to rebuild and grow their population.
"We've seen improvements in our neighborhoods because of the investment immigrants have made," she said. "This is how our cities were built, They were built on immigrants. Why not turn to that again and do that again?"
Pittsburgh has already proven to be attractive for immigrants such as Lavender Wachira, who came from Kenya to get her MBA at Point Park University and now works as a program officer with Christian Evangelistic Economic Development. She opened Wednesday's news conference with her story.
When native Pittsburghers meet her, they often ask, "Really, why Pittsburgh?"
"At first, I shared that sentiment," she said. "Now, five years down the line, I call Pittsburgh my home. And now when people tell me, 'Why Pittsburgh?' I say, 'Why not Pittsburgh?' "
The city is also seeing a growing number of Bhutanese refugees who were resettled in other American cities move to Pittsburgh's South Hills communities. And other immigrants say that while they've encountered some antagonism, Pittsburghers have by and large been friendly to them.
Dong Yang came to Wednesday's launch as a guest of Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, where she takes English as a second language classes. She's an anesthesiologist and researcher who’s on her second rotation in the Steel City. She fell in love with the city the first time, building a network of both Chinese and American friends.
"I like Pittsburgh so much, especially the people," she said.
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published May 28, 2014 11:10 AM