The problem is population decline and the shrinking tax base. Ideally, the Promise incentivizes more people to live within the city proper. What's not to like about free college education for all of your children? According to O'Neill, the region is yawning:
That's potentially 80 grand if a Pittsburgh family sends two children to college. Yet you don't hear people talking about it much. We just aren't used to news that good in Pittsburgh. Many just hear it and throw it in our massive too-good-to-be-true pile.
O'Neill then explores Pittsburgh's ambivalence and the need to change the culture. That's not going to happen. In fact, O'Neill interviewed two "outsiders" for his piece. Non-natives are much more ready to embrace the Promise.
Retention initiatives are doomed to failure. Cultural inertia is very powerful. Concerning migration modeling, we tend to underestimate these residuals. We provide one rational choice opportunity after another for a very irrational community. If the opposite were true, then young talent wouldn't continue to try to cram into Cool Portland (Oregon) or more software companies would take advantage of geographic arbitrage in Youngstown (Ohio).
The culture of migration is something to leverage, not re-engineer. O'Neill's book does work with this flow. He provides tacit knowledge of the advantages of urban living in a Pittsburgh North Side neighborhood. But his stories would better appeal to outsiders than locals (who have already made up their minds and are set in their ways).
With the right demographic identified, how do O'Neill and the Pittsburgh Promise reach a critical mass of prospective city residents?
I think the answer is locked up in the social media community.
My wife is a Pittsburgh native, raised in the North Allegheny school district. She has a geographically independent occupation in software sales. We have two preschool aged children and would love to raise them in my wife's hometown. The Pittsburgh Promise is an attractive offer, but the relocation logistics are daunting.
Where to look for the right neighborhood within city limits? Which school or schools might be a good fit? As you might imagine, my suburban raised wife has a host of concerns about city living. All these anxieties erode the advantages of the Promise. And while O'Neill's book is a good start for addressing the fears, a full court press is needed to cinch the deal.
The northern suburbs are the known commodity. We already know how to find a good neighborhood. We can easily compare the schools to the ones we attended. But the city is terra incognita. The Promise provides the necessary financial incentive. Missing is the intimacy of place that can help us feel like we are making a good decision.
We aren't looking to be urban pioneers. A community with other reformed suburbanites would be ideal. The Promise hasn't been in place long enough for one to take hold, but journalists such as O'Neill might bring to light a few of these seed residents. If he can't find them, then perhaps Pittsburgh needs to sweeten the deal and help mitigate the risk of being one of the pioneers.
I have to believe that the right neighborhoods already exist, particularly as far as expatriates are concerned. I'd bet there are cost effective options if you know where to look. The first step is creating the online environment where such knowledge can be effectively brokered. Partner the site with the Pittsburgh Promise with the stated intention to lure families to the city. Might some existing local nonprofit be in a good position to spearhead the initiative?
Most importantly, forget the city's surrounding suburbs. Bring in the people who will bring a cultural change with them. That's the only way to transform the regional mentality. Encouraging the young to stay will have the opposite effect. This will reproduce the parochial attitudes, the suburbs continuing to benefit at the expense of the inner city.