Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Charlotte Trying To Be Pittsburgh

Charlotte (NC) and Pittsburgh would seem to have a zero-sum relationship. Pittsburgh's loss was Charlotte's gain. It's the prototypical Rust Belt-to-Sun Belt migration tale. Now, Charlotte is looking to Pittsburgh for clues about urban reinvention:

But plenty of cities have seen their main industry decline or even disappear and have met the challenge head-on, emerging stronger and more diversified. Here's advice from a few of them for Charlotte: ...

... 4. Take care of existing businesses. Pittsburgh had to do some major reinventing when steel started moving overseas in the 1970s. Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Conference on Community Development and Affiliates, said one of his strategies is to focus on growing hometown businesses rather than recruiting others from out of town.

For one thing, recruiting can be expensive because it usually involves offering tax breaks and other incentives. Besides, Yablonsky and others said, even the most successful transplant businesses are less likely than a homegrown group to fund the new university wing or put their name on a charitable event.

"We spend a lot more time taking care of our own," Yablonsky said.

5. Be patient. In Pittsburgh, the economy is dramatically more diversified than in the 1970s, when steel made up more than 40 percent of the economy, Yablonsky said. Now, the city has a strong presence in financial services, manufacturing, health care, energy and information technology, with no sector making up more than 20 percent of the local economy.

"But," Yablonsky said, "it took us 30 years to get there."

This tale of two cities is emblematic of the economic geography in the wake of the Great Recession. The global rules of the game have changed and Charlotte is on the outside looking in on regional prosperity. Ironically, Pittsburgh finds itself way ahead of the curve:

While traditional counting methods used by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that just 2.9% of the jobs in southeast Wisconsin rely on information technology skills, a new report says the number of jobs in the region that require significant computing skills is much bigger than that, and growing fast.

Two-thirds of the region's workforce use some computing skills, and nearly 24% - totaling more than 223,000 jobs as of 2008 - require "significant skills," according to the report released by the non-profit Milwaukee Institute. Many of those jobs have not traditionally been identified as being related to information technology because they are classified by the fields they are in, such as manufacturing, health care and financial services.

The institute, a crusader for a shared, high-performance computing system in the region, hopes the findings will prompt awareness of the need for a regional technology strategy, said Jay Bayne, executive director. ...

... Austin, Pittsburgh and Seattle are among the metropolitan areas that have developed or are developing powerful high-tech infrastructures, Bayne said. The best such initiative that Bayne has seen is in California, where the University of California has spearheaded a program called Calit2 that helps put together research teams from business and academia and has a staff of computing experts who support their work.

The shock of seeing Pittsburgh lumped in with the likes of Austin and Seattle is waning. Cities around the country are seeking counsel with former Mayor Tom Murphy and hoping to emulate Pittsburgh's latest transformation:

And Pittsburgh is a good model for Detroit. We went through essentially the same thing. We went from being a city known as hell with a lid off to one now that is ranked by the economy in Forbes Magazine as the most livable city in America. How does that happen? It happens, as Kristina mentioned, about leadership. It happens because people make a choice to change the rules. Part of -- and this is -- I want to give example is that we bought a steel mill site, 250 acres. I'm thinking that we will develop it much like a suburban subdivision to compete with the suburbs. I have a really good city planner who -- my planning director who comes to me and say, why would you do that? Why wouldn't we develop this like the best neighborhood in Pittsburgh? And the best neighborhood in Pittsburgh was built in the -- probably in the '20s, the '10s and its million-dollar houses, it's apartments, it's townhouses. It's a mix of houses. We build that much denser than sort of two houses per acre, much denser, 15 units per acre. It's the most successful development in the Pittsburgh region. ...

... People who had not been -- considered living in Pittsburgh chose that as the place to live over suburban subdivisions. And so cities can compete and I think that's the challenge for Detroit. Is one, figure out who they're going to be. Figure out what are their assets. You know, one of the things we did in this development is we daylighted a stream that had been culverted for the better part of a hundred years. Opened a stream up, created trails along the stream. It creates huge value for people. Think about where you want to take your kids to learn how to ride a bike; in a Wal-Mart parking lot or along a trail?

I'm sure Chris Briem will appreciate the "hell with a lid off" reference. Pittsburgh's economic restructuring has reached mythic proportions. This is the tipping point for robust inmigration. Between Charlotte and Pittsburgh, the tables have turned.

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