Region's boundaries are sketchy

Border can cover as many as five states, depending on who's holding tape measure

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If deciding on a common boundary for the Pittsburgh region were a straightforward exercise, plenty of demographers must have missed that lesson.

Depending on who's holding the tape measure, the region, sometimes known as Greater Pittsburgh, Southwestern Pennsylvania or the Tri-State Area, can include as few as one county, as in the case of the Allegheny County Regional Asset District, or as many as 62 across five states, the version used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The results affect everything from the rates TV stations can charge advertisers, the reimbursement rates nursing homes get from Medicare or whether Steubenville, Ohio; Fairmont, W.Va.; or even Armstrong County are included in programs promoting the region.

Other compilations by government, policy analysts and industries comprise seven, eight, 15, 19 and 22 counties, the latter touted by a Carnegie Mellon-University of Pittsburgh think tank that counts the three-county, Morgantown, W.Va., triangle -- a separate region as far as the Census Bureau is concerned -- as part of Pittsburgh.

"What do we mean when we say 'Pittsburgh region'?" the Regional Indicators Consortium Web site begins in coming up with a definition of its own.

By extending southwest into Marion, Monongalia and Preston counties in West Virginia, the consortium's vision of Pittsburgh includes Morgantown-Fairmont, one of three fringe boomlets along with Cranberry and Southpointe.

The expanded region produces a Pittsburgh that might help it gain a notch or two on other benchmark cities nationwide.

"What you want to see is whether there's parts that are doing better than other parts -- and the answer is yes," said John G. Craig Jr., consortium president and retired editor of the Post-Gazette. The Morgantown triangle that includes West Virginia University and the I-79 Technology Park was hailed as a top small town for business last year by both Inc.com and Forbes.com.

While it can be difficult to gauge the promotional edge in attracting tourists and businesses, how the region is defined can produce bottom-line benefits or, in the case of Armstrong County, rear-view disappointments.

This month marked the five-year anniversary of Armstrong County's addition to the Pittsburgh MSA, a milestone that Armstrong County Commissioner Jim Scahill had applauded.

Today, the commissioner still hails Armstrong County's enhanced ability to attract tourism and commerce. But he is also quite bitter because he believes the state has shortchanged the county some $1 million in Medicaid reimbursements -- money that he said the county is entitled to since becoming part of the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area.

"It's a long, long story of the government absolutely denying what the legislation said," Mr. Scahill complained.

The state Department of Public Welfare is supposed to weigh MSA data heavily in setting rates, which means the once-rural Armstrong County should have gotten a bump once it joined a higher-cost, urban region. That's essentially what happened with Medicare rates, which are controlled by the federal government.

Linda Dragon, director of the Armstrong County Health Center, the county-run nursing home, had expected the redesignation to produce roughly a $12-a-day increase covering each of the nearly 60 residents on medical assistance.

But budget woes in Harrisburg put any talk of region-changing rate increases on hold, said Anne Wantz, chief operating officer of the statewide trade group, the Pennsylvania Health Care Association.

"Some counties like Armstrong could have gotten more money," said Ms. Wantz, "but there were some others that would've lost money." Plus the overall loss to the system would've been $3 million to $4 million, she added.

So the decision was made, DPW officials acknowledged, to keep all nursing homes within their original peer-group regions.

The industry group reluctantly went along, Ms. Wantz said, with the thought being that "we'd do a grand review of the whole reimbursement system and factor in how to take into account the MSAs at the same time."

Four years later this region-by-region overhaul has yet to occur and Armstrong County remains on the outside of Pittsburgh looking in.

"We were very upset but what are you going to do? You have to move on," Ms. Dragon said.

Another industry where geography drives cost is broadcast media. TV transmissions transcend street-level boundaries, which is why the Pittsburgh region, as defined by Nielsen Media Research, can reach into Garrett County, Md.

But even though it's a lot closer, Steubenville, Ohio, is not part of the Nielsen-defined Pittsburgh Designated Market Area. So, WTOV-TV offers prime-time rate cards that reflect being in the No. 159 Wheeling-Steubenville market with 135,000 viewers, not the No. 22 Pittsburgh market with 1.16 million viewers.

The difference can translate to roughly a 10-fold difference in the cost of advertising time, said Adam Golomb, marketing director for the Eat'n Park Hospitality Group. Mr. Golomb handles media buys in the Pittsburgh DMA but also those that surround it, including No. 17 Cleveland, No. 99 Johnstown, No. 106 Youngstown, No. 142 Erie, and No. 159 Wheeling-Steubenville.

Since these markets overlap to some degree, Mr. Golomb said companies like his also track "spill," or the estimate of how many viewers in Steubenville, for instance, watch Pittsburgh stations and vice versa.

"Ultimately what you're paying for are eyeballs," he said, with the 37,000 additional viewers in the Cleveland DMA translating into a 10-to-12 percent premium that Eat 'n Park has to pay there compared to in its core Pittsburgh market.

Having been left off the Pittsburgh map in cases like this, Steubenville took matters into its own hands as part of its new millennium/new business campaign in 1999.

Now that part of the Route 22-60 Findlay Connector is open, the town has redoubled its push as being "The 'burb of the 'Burgh" -- a hub in waiting that's less than 30 miles from Pittsburgh International Airport with not a stoplight in sight.

If it weren't for an annoying thing called a state line, said Ed Looman of Progress Alliance, a Steubenville-Jefferson County economic development partnership, more people might know of the region's proximity.

"That's the whole reason behind that slogan being developed," the new executive director said. "It's more of an awareness that we are close, particularly to the airport with the new Findlay Connector."

Close, but not too close. Steubenville may promote itself as being part of the Pittsburgh region, but the Alliance also knows when keeping its distance is a shrewder tactic.

"Employers will find affordable labor in the Steubenville-Weirton Metropolitan Statistical Area," the alliance Web site says, citing the 2004 median hourly wage of $11.56 an hour, compared to the Pittsburgh MSA's $13.18.


Correction/Clarification: (Published July 2, 2008) In this story as originally published June 29, 2008, Forest and Clarion counties were omitted from the list of 16 counties that belong to the Pittsburgh Designated Market Area set by Nielsen Media Research: Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Clarion, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Venango, Washington and Westmoreland in Pennsylvania; Garrett County in Maryland; Monongalia and Preston in West Virginia.

David Guo can be reached at 412-263-1413 or dguo@post-gazette.com .


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