Brian O'Neill: Region is overdue to get attention of immigrants

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We've seen these before, these concerted efforts to get immigrants -- or anyone -- to move to Pittsburgh, but this one feels different to Victor Diaz.

This one, Mr. Diaz says, is going to work.

He was there Wednesday when Mayor Bill Peduto and Bill Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference announced the launch of Welcoming Pittsburgh, a vehicle to make the region more attractive to immigrants.

Western Pennsylvania largely missed the boat -- and the van, and the plane -- on immigrants for most of the past half-century. Had they arrived here the way they have pretty much everywhere else in America, the region's population numbers would be dramatically higher.

The reasons for that are largely tied to that four-letter word, "jobs," but leaders are right to worry about this. Our population of 45-to-65-year-olds outnumbers the next youngest group by 144,000 people, Mr. Flanagan notes. We'll need to find more workers somewhere if we're to keep all we have in Pittsburgh.

Knowing a problem and fixing it are different things. More than a decade ago, foundations hereabouts poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into an effort to coax "in-migrants'' here. The idea was to attract Hispanics from other regions, and a Hispanic Center was established on the North Side. That effort fizzled after a few years without much having changed.

Nationwide, some 55 percent of immigrants since 2000 have come from Mexico and South and Central America, but in the Pittsburgh region that figure is 17 percent.

Still Mr. Diaz, 57 -- who grew up in New Jersey after his family's arrival from Cuba when he was 9 -- has seen some changes in his 14 years in Pittsburgh. When he walks the Strip District now, he might hear some Spanish, and he believes that Pittsburgh sells itself once people get a taste of it.

"We do a great job of patting ourselves on the back locally,'' he said, but that word doesn't travel far. Get people here, though, and they'll stick.

He points to a couple of men he just hired. Mr. Diaz owns a sewer cleaning and inspection company, VideoTek Construction, and a small trucking and hauling company, VTC Supply. His company brought the new employees -- one of them his partner's brother-in-law -- up from Miami to clean sewers. They're making twice what they made in Miami and that brother-in-law and his wife, new parents, are looking to buy a home.

Sure, the cold winters and steep hills can be a shocker to South Floridians, but the newcomers are sticking because of the opportunities they've found, he said.

"People are asking me, 'Can you get me 10 more like them?' "

Mr. Diaz thinks that story can be replicated many times over because the right person is at the helm of this welcoming campaign: Betty Cruz, the city's nonprofit and faith-based manager, who is the daughter of Cuban immigrants.

"I really do believe things will be different,'' he said.

Mr. Peduto is out front on this, but this is a regional issue. The percentage of city residents who are foreign-born arrivals since 2000 is actually pretty close to the national average. Almost everywhere else in the metro area, it's a different story.

Christopher Briem of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research points to census data that show 4.4 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born and an arrival since 2000. In the city proper, the percentage is 4.1. That population may be pumped up by foreign students in our universities, but in the rest of Allegheny County the figure is 1.5 percent and in every surrounding county it's less than 1 percent.

Mr. Diaz, who lives in Monroeville, doesn't need to look at those numbers. He's never confined his vision to the city limits. He co-founded the Pittsburgh Metro Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce a decade ago and, though he recently left that board, he's behind the Pittsburgh Hispanic Development Corp. effort to get more real estate investment here.

It shouldn't matter if a person is from Carrick, Cuba or Connecticut. If they're willing to work, or invest their own money here, they should be welcomed. The labor force needs a lot more people to fall or stay in love with Pittsburgh.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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