Several lessons to take from Pittsburgh's revitalization

09/22/2011 7:14 AM

08/08/2014 10:05 AM

Now into our sixth year of city-to-city visits, we found that the Pittsburgh story is about a region determining its own fate.

In the 1980s the steel industry that drove Pittsburgh's economy fell apart. As the steel mills began to shut down, Pittsburgh lost about 250,000 working-age people within in a decade. Because of the long-term boom and bust cycle of the steel industry, the community collectively seemed to say, "When steel comes back, here's what we'll do."

At some point, the realization set in that the steel industry would never be what it was to Pittsburgh's economy. Yet in some ways the larger community then realized "the people we are waiting for are us."

The hard work began as community leaders and people gathered to define Pittsburgh's destiny in various ways. In the 1990s they:

* commissioned an economic benchmark report with results that encouraged regional cooperation;

* developed a shared strategy around key economic areas, including economic growth, diversity of industry, work force needs;

* determined what business climate it needed to be competitive both for businesses and to recruit workers;

* had an intense conversation about keeping young people in the region and attracting more;

* found a way to distinguish itself nationally in the area of green design by focusing on buildings already planned;

* saw that a region can't thrive with a failing core and realized that if it wanted to be competitive, it had to have a thriving downtown area.

Their results and lessons learned and shared were impressive.

Pittsburgh has more jobs now than it did at the height of the steel industry. The economy still has a base of manufacturing, but has also grown the banking and financial, health care, life sciences and energy sectors, while adding information and communications technology.

It has a much older population because the working-age people left so it especially needs to keep and recruit young people. The Pittsburgh area has more than 20,000 open jobs right now. It has worked to design strategies to keep and recruit young people through partnerships with universities, shared job websites and quality of life efforts, including downtown.

Leaders told us that they now have a culture of collaboration. They work together from all sectors and on all fronts, including public-private partnerships, non-profit organizations, foundations and education .

They also said it took different leaders at different times and for various efforts to bring initiatives forward. Sometimes the leader was a strong elected leader while other times it was the business leaders, or foundations. In 10 years, riverfront development exploded with a new convention center, shoreline parks, biking/running trails, two new professional sports venues and a continued focus on public art. Working together, leaders figured out how to get things done by having different plans and paths, without letting a previously defeatist attitude stop them before they started. Plus they started the conversation from where their strengths were instead of how to shore-up their weaknesses. Our region has a lot of strengths. Two of those are Visioneering Wichita and Project Downtown, our new downtown revitalization plan. We are fortunate that thousands of people provided input to our regional vision based on economic growth. Both plans tell us what things are important to grow our region.

As a Pittsburgh leader said, "The future of competitiveness as a community and region depends upon how the pieces are put together." Those pieces include economic growth and business climate; livable communities that people want to stay in and move to; quality of education and overall quality of life.

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce thanks the many great partners and people of this region who are dedicated to successfully putting our puzzle pieces together.

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