Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pittsburgh Mistakes Inform Troubled Hamilton

Hamilton, Ontario is mulling over two trajectories, Buffalo or Pittsburgh? That's not to say Pittsburgh has done everything right. Former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy confesses:

Murphy's message to Hamilton political leadership is blunt. Don't wait for the steel mills to close permanently before taking action, he says.

Murphy admits his administration was too slow to respond to Pittsburgh's shrinking tax base and the budget crisis it caused. A plant closure has a cascading financial impact not only on tax revenue but also on water and hydro income and on social service expenditures.

He tells Hamilton leaders to be brutally honest now with all stakeholders about the shared sacrifices that will necessitate.

He recommends a formal partnership between U.S. Steel and the city to establish firm commitments to transfer ownership of any lands deemed surplus and to contribute to a tax stabilization fund and assist with retraining of former steelworkers at Mohawk College.

Murphy says our city council needs to have the courage to talk now about a post-industrial Hamilton, focused on a more entrepreneurial culture and less on big corporations and big unions.

Staying focused on the negative, Murphy's plan for downtown revitalization has a number of critics. Furthermore, Murphy remarks on the numerous advantages Hamilton has over Pittsburgh:

He also points to our proximity to the [Greater Toronto Area] with its growing population base and a relatively robust regional economy -- unlike Pittsburgh and its surrounding region, which continues to lose population.

Pittsburgh still has a lot of strikes against it, making the recent modest success all the more impressive. If the region could address even a few more of these shortcomings, then more robust growth might be unleashed. But the eastern part of the US Rust Belt doesn't have a Toronto nearby or, like the western half, a Chicago.

Given the Detroit tailspin, many shrinking cities (including Cleveland) are dependent on the latest Pittsburgh renaissance. As for Pittsburgh, its own progress hinges on its relationship with the DC area. Revisiting the high-speed rail geography:

Cleveland is placing a bet on better connectivity with Chicago. The same is true for Detroit. Pittsburgh and Buffalo are decidedly east coast oriented. This tells me that no one expects another Chicago miracle. The US alpha world cities are, by and large, set.

Chicago's reach is overstated. Rust Belt East should plug into the Bos-Wash megalopolis. If Pittsburgh does so successfully, then Cleveland investment in Chicago would be a huge mistake. Right now, Cleveland is intent on going it alone. That's bad news for Pittsburgh, Detroit, Toledo, Erie, Columbus, and perhaps even Buffalo.

The lesson for Hamilton is that parochial political geographies are the primary barrier to economic redevelopment. Toronto isn't competition, but the greatest regional asset. Don't pull a Cleveland.


Paz said...

I wonder, what possibility is there for Toronto to serve as a regional hub for the Eastern Rust Belt? It's easily the most populous city between the East Coast and the Second City. In the short term, we should be drawing ourselves into the NEC (in particular with the Keystone corridor), but in the long term, might it behoove us to look North?

Jim Russell said...

There's a great deal of value in looking north, but not for purposes of urban pairing.

The Pittsburgh-Johnstown links to DC are quite valuable and functional. As I've joked before, Pittsburgh is a suburb of DC.

Paz said...

Don't I know it. That's a major reason why I'm sitting in a classroom in Foggy Bottom right now instead of one in Hyde Park. DC is a place I've been going to since middle school. It's somewhere we I felt a familiarity with even before I came. Chicago was incredible, but we just didn't know it or feel that connection.