Since late 2006, slot-machine palaces have been opening up across Pennsylvania. This past December, ground was broken on the North Shore for the Majestic Star casino, set to open in 2009. Many people are betting big on the cash flow, but how will it really wash out?
As a city school teacher, I consider the lure of casino gambling a bad lesson for Pittsburgh's children. Above all, legalized gambling is simply a desperate form of economic development. Like steroids in an athlete, casinos may pump us up today, but they don't best serve our future.
I am hoping, however, that the construction of Pittsburgh's huge casino creates a counter-reaction: It should force us to think big about authentic projects to boost the region's economy -- projects that work with Pittsburgh's true strengths and perpetuate our city's heritage as a place that shapes the world.
Here are three ideas. They surely offer better odds than a slot machine.
During its booming steel days, Pittsburgh produced what the world wanted. Steelmaking has left our city -- even if it left its heart behind. In the foreseeable future, however, we will all need to obtain more metals and plastics through recycling.
With the right engineering and entrepreneurial work, Pittsburgh could play a key role in this post-industrial revolution. We could get back to giving the world what it wants in materials -- and America what it needs in leadership.
The European Union nations lead the world in responsible and efficient recycling of post-consumer and industrial products. In the most advanced nations, everything from candy bar wrappers to obsolete computers have a systematized way of being turned back into useful and profitable materials. Some nations outside the EU, like Japan, are keeping pace, but most of the world is lagging behind and the United States is being lapped.
A skeptic might assert that America recycles a greater volume of post-consumer waste than many other nations combined, and say that we're doing fine. But this is the type of statistical pitfall that I try to teach my high school students to see through. While it is true that the United States "recycles more" than most nations, this is only because we consume much, much more than everyone else.
Beyond not handling the volume of recycling, America is poorly equipped to process complex recyclables such as computer hardware, household appliances and automobiles. A few small ventures throughout the United States are following Europe's lead on such challenges, but significant financial backing and support have been lacking.
Post-consumer items are shipped in great quantities to poorer nations, where they are processed in crude ways that create toxic conditions for the people and environment. Chief among these nations are China and India. An alarming amount of this waste also goes to West African nations.
It will be an sad testament to American history if, hundreds of years after taking the most valuable resource from Africa, in human beings, America ships the waste of mismanaged prosperity back to the ancestral lands of those people.
Admittedly, like the blast furnaces of Carnegie's mills, constructing "disassembly" lines is a big investment that takes time to pay off. But developing recycling infrastructure is a must.
By developing it in Pittsburgh, a place still recovering from the decline of industry, we would provide a national and international model for other cities making similar economic transitions. Beyond our city's waste, Pittsburgh could import and profit from waste that other Eastern Seaboard cities are paying to bury in each other's backyards.
A natural continuation of this neo-industry would be the fostering of new methods in manufacturing that take the "end-life" of products into account. There would be less need for some energy-hungry forms of recycling if the materials we produce were designed with reuse in mind.
Pittsburgh is extremely well situated for the task. We have the human resource competencies -- universities and local industry. And we have the logistical competencies -- vacant industrial space, low-cost rail and river transportation, and existing ventures such as Construction Junction.
Could Pittsburgh be the solar-powered capital of the country? Despite our often gloomy weather, we get plenty of sun to power a good portion of our region's energy consumption.
Carnegie Mellon University installed a modest-sized array of panels on one of its off-campus buildings, providing 10 percent of the structure's total energy consumption. If that sounds underwhelming, consider this factoid: According to a 2002 article in the journal Science, if one-quarter of U.S. roof and pavement space had solar paneling, it could supply all the electric power needed in the country.
The reason no one has snapped his or her fingers and made this happen? Change, particularly solar technology, is still expensive. The energy industry is slow to shift gears. But it's well-known that Pittsburgh has a tremendous track record of going green. What we need is a giant leap to make it our new and defining identity.
The David L. Lawrence Convention Center is recognized as the first and largest "green" convention center in the world. PNC Financial Services Group has built many accredited buildings and is committed to seeking certification for all new bank branches. Many homeowners are taking it upon themselves to make their homes efficient. Green architecture groups are sprouting up all around town.
From this local knowledge base, a cooperation of industry, education and government could be managed to create an "embodied think-tank" in a new structure, built (figuratively) upon the most advanced green architecture principles and built (literally) with the most efficient materials and practices: A center dedicated to economic and responsible building.
It could house workspace and classrooms to promote economically and environmentally green practices in construction. It could be the organizing base for carrying out cooperative public, commercial and residential projects throughout Pittsburgh. Partnerships with the Housing Authority and organizations like Habitat for Humanity could grow quite naturally, making these efforts as socially constructive as economically developmental.
The expertise housed in such a center could also guide local ventures in manufacturing. PPG Industries, which has been making great progress in energy-efficient glass, is an existing example of what can be accomplished. Other companies could be courted to develop energy-efficient or energy-producing materials in Pittsburgh if the message is clear that we are dedicated to hosting such development.
Local ventures could be as space-aged as revamping manufacturing facilities to produce non-toxic synthetic materials as an alternative to PVC piping and siding, which are in general use but often contains toxic plasticizers.
Another venture could be as down-to-earth as creating a "bamboo mill." Bamboo is all the rage for economic flooring in green construction. Pittsburgh falls within the USDA's climate zone 6, for which there are numerous species of fast-growing, hardy bamboos that can handle winter temperatures and flourish in our high annual rainfall.
With dilapidated buildings and vacant lots dotting our city's landscape, why not continue with the clearing of nuisance properties and plant bamboo groves in spaces that are otherwise in neglect? Urban agriculture of this kind would provide healthy outdoor jobs. Bamboo produces 30 percent more oxygen than hardwood trees while thirstily absorbing carbon dioxide.
Even as advocacy groups are fighting to make the casino structure "more green," we need to reach the point where we can stop putting the word green in quotation marks when we use it as an adjective for architecture.
For future generations, all architecture will be green in nature. With citywide collaboration among local government, industry, trade unions and universities, Pittsburgh could be known for making it so.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2006, Muhammad Yunus, is a man who organized and administered a micro-loan system to support entrepreneurs and impoverished families in Bangladesh.
His example proved that where there is a will, there is a way to change from traditional, bogged-down banking to dynamic, low-risk and high-volume lending. The model has been employed with greater frequency and success in many nations that need to provide a financial buffer and initial support for small-business operators and poverty-stricken families.
The lesson seems to be that smaller-scale, high-frequency transactions, which have worked for mega-retailers to profiteer and tilt the field in their favor, can also be employed in banking systems to support and balance the field for honest, hard-working people.
If micro-loan programs can work in Bangladesh, maybe they can work here. An argument that might be immediately apparent is that there is a long-standing system for micro-loans in America: the credit card.
But we can all see how well that is working out, can't we? Micro-loans, which provide a support structure to loan recipients and operate by a community-based accountability for repayment to lenders, may or may not be a solution to the credit debacle in America. Credit unions operate somewhat on this basis, but have comparably limited scope because they usually operate within specific communities or employee groups. Could the mass banking market be retooled in such a way?
With its economically diverse population, business and education communities, Pittsburgh may be the ideal place to explore such considerations. Pittsburgh was a center of wealth, keeping up with Chicago and New York City in its heyday.
While that status has changed with shifting markets, industries and population, the business acumen and corporate ambition that made this city a powerhouse have not disappeared.
In a U.S. market on the downslide and a global market that is showing signs of being up for grabs to the creative and visionary, Pittsburgh could take a leadership role by creating another type of "embodied think tank" for financial management.
This economic research center could be housed close to Downtown and conduct active field research and management in the financing of local ventures, university research, small business expansions, student loan programs (including the Pittsburgh Promise), home loans and personal asset planning. Partnership with public assistance offices could be coordinated to create a center for social service of financial and tax advisement to families and small-business owners -- following the philosophy that we all stand to benefit with more stable families and community-based businesses.
The work could extend into much-needed research for the financing of health care and health insurance. With cooperation from local hospital systems and medical practices, independent fiscal planning might find win-win situations for patients and providers. This center could maybe even pool together the economic minds of Pittsburgh to offer expert advise to the city and county in ... ahem ... balancing the books. Such services and solutions might be replicated globally.
This scenario may sound too much like the "Building and Loan" that George Bailey ran in "It's a Wonderful Life" for you to swallow. But, consider that some people who "work with money" actually do so, at least in part, to make the world a more equitable and healthy place.
The advancement of the impoverished need not come from a fall of the successful. But attempts to raise quality of life for all people, without undermining healthy markets with unhealthy debt, requires intelligent and progressive economic strategies.
It is possible that some financial professionals who've been constrained by industry practices or antiquated economic strategy just need an opportunity to use their power for good.