The Diaspora Report: Are bad times good for Pittsburgh?
What's good for America is good for General Motors, and vice versa, so said GM's one-time chairman, Charles Wilson. But wouldn't it be just a bit counterintuitive if what's bad for America -- and downright devastating for GM -- is actually good for Pittsburgh?
Everybody's on the Pittsburgh bandwagon. BusinessWeek magazine said Pittsburgh is one of the best American cities in which to ride out tough times. Time magazine said Pittsburgh, on account of its tortoise-like approach to jobs and housing growth, is now bypassing the hares, the "one economic bright spot on Main Street." Last month, Cleveland's Plain Dealer wrote a love letter to our city, "The Steel City's New Strength" -- "a city that once defined Rust Belt decay might show the rest of the nation how to weather a recession."
Let's conveniently ignore the city's crushing pension debt, the city's crushing regular debt, and the fact that the city is still effectively in Act 47 custody, and the fact that many of Pittsburgh Mon Valley suburbs are nearly irretrievable. Because, hey, it's the holidays, and we're in a forgiving mood, and besides, lots of other cities have the exact same problems.
For all that's still depressing about the city, there's also no denying that our home values are steady relative to other cities and our unemployment situation is relatively rosy. Our giant hometown bank is surviving while others are collapsing. The point is, it may not matter whether Pittsburgh has actually turned a corner. What's relevant is that everybody else seems to think we have.
Make you wonder -- is this just a stupendous job of story-pitching by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development?
Or is this rash of good press more organic?
"They're calling us. We're not calling them," claims Shawn Bannon, spokesman for the business boosters at the Allegheny Conference. "It's not an orchestrated thing."
Pittsburgh, like every other Rust Belt city in good standing, frets about all the young talent that is groomed here, then gets a job somewhere else. Historically the answer has been "jobs." And "sunshine."
We can't do a thing about the weather, but as luck would have it, the U.S. economy is in the toilet; meanwhile, Pittsburgh has tens of thousands of jobs available. Take one, please.
"This is not a boomerang initiative," says DeWitt Peart, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. The Alliance, part of the Allegheny Conference, is trying to bend the ears of that fugitive talent via imaginemynewjob.com, a new jobs portal that lists 30,000 Pittsburgh-area positions.
OK, maybe it's not a boomerang initiative, but it just so happens that the Alliance has been spending much of its $400,000 marketing budget in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore market, the unofficial headquarters of the Pittsburgh Diaspora.
"We know from our research that a good portion of the talent that we lose from the Pittsburgh region ends up in D.C.," said Mr. Peart. The flip side is that "the talent that we receive back to Pittsburgh comes from D.C."
So ... it is a boomerang initiative?
"This is a talent initiative," Mr. Peart said. "We need to find a way to fill the talent pipeline in this region ... if someone is looking to relocate, we think Pittsburgh is better off than a lot of other regions."
So Pittsburgh is spreading the news -- the Web site, plus beltway-area billboards, plus two rounds of direct mail to the 25-34 cohort living in Maryland and Virginia. They even threw a happy hour -- themed "Pittsburgh. Smart Move." -- at a swanky D.C. nightclub.
"Only about a dozen people showed up, and most were from Pittsburgh and had no intention of moving back," said University of Pittsburgh grad Nikki Schwab, formerly of Ligonier, now working in D.C. for U.S. News & World Report. "And it was open bar! If that doesn't entice people to go, I don't know what does." Amen to that, sister.
While we have you on the phone, what would draw a young, talented Pittsburgher like you back home? Any bright ideas?
"I don't know how you would recruit people to a city who are pretty well implanted in D.C. already," she said.
Ah, but that event was at the beginning of October, before the economy really tanked, and before all those glowing chamber-of-commerce accounts of Pittsburgh's revival. Implanted folks don't like to move; jobless folks are a bit more open-minded. Maybe the stars are aligning in the way that they did for places like Austin and Charlotte in the '90s.
Or maybe these stars are just too far apart. Remember the Pioneer plaques? America drew some pictures on the side of the two Pioneer spacecraft, just in case they were intercepted by space aliens on their journeys out of the solar system. Pittsburgh is sending her signal, but suppose the Diaspora has stopped scanning the skies?
First Published December 26, 2008 12:00 am