Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pensacola Trying To Be Pittsburgh

Detroit is looking to Pittsburgh as an economic development model. Owensboro is applying that very paradigm in its own backyard:

Detroit has also suffered because, in the current age of talent and innovation driven economy, their two world class universities are out in the hinterland to the east and west of the city. Pittsburgh was able to successfully reinvent itself from a rust belt steel town to a vibrant and hip city through it's focus on education and quality of place. It did so largely due to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. Today, this poster child of a blue collar town is more known for it's innovative health care and computer science than it's steel. ...

... Finally, it is joining some other prominent cities, including Pittsburgh, in the "shrinking cities" movement, focusing it's future not on growth, but quality. Quality of place through redeveloping blighted properties and quality of education.

These are lessons we are focused on here in Owensboro-- quality of place, cultivating talent, industry diversification and redeveloping the center. Thankfully, despite our challenges, we are ahead of the game--especially compared to rust belt regions large and small like Detroit.

Economic development professionals are cashing in on Pittsburgh's positive image. Pensacola is the latest city seeking that dividend:

The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition will freshen that breeze next week with the latest speaker in its ongoing public lecture series. Wednesday, IHMC will host Tom Murphy, the former three-term mayor of Pittsburgh, credited with reviving what had been a dying Rust Belt city. ...

... As usual with IHMC speakers, his resume is stellar. He's a graduate of the New Mayors Program at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, has a master's degree in urban studies and a bachelor's in biology and chemistry, served in the Peace Corps and was an eight-term Pennsylvania state legislator.

Part of Murphy's mission on the Gulf Coast is to find communities "appropriate for Urban Land Institute involvement."

Well, here's a hint from Pensacola: Help!

Murphy is travelling around the United States riding the coattails of Pittsburgh's perceived success. Instead of trying to be the next Silicon Valley or Austin, regions want to be the next Pittsburgh. This narrative is showing up in mainstream media sources with increasing frequency. How might it affect domestic migration patterns?

As everyone knows, the economic recovery has been sluggish at best. Furthermore, there are still a bunch of bad mortgages fixing in place unemployed and underemployed alike. That's not the case with the most geographically mobile demographic, namely twentysomethings. I lump artists, writers and musicians of all ages into that group. Pop City has a story about the building national buzz attracting (in this case, re-attracting) creative people to Pittsburgh:

Growing up less than an hour away in a coal-mining family in Uniontown, Horvath's childhood was rooted in small-town life and included but one visit to Pittsburgh. It was enough, however, to prompt her to apply to Pittsburgh colleges while still in 10th grade. After a stint at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, Horvath, known as "Dane" to friends, bounced around between ad agency jobs and the occasional freelance design gig as she developed her portfolio. Nonetheless, she was restless.

"It seemed a little stale here," she recalls. "Nothing was happening on the queer scene and trying to find things was hard. I was dating someone who was offered a job in Northampton and I jumped at the chance to move. It was an awesome experience – we could hold hands and it was okay!"

Several moves and one relationship later, Horvath started paying attention to the growing buzz surrounding Pittsburgh. Visiting friends back home made her homesick as they opened her eyes to a burgeoning restaurant and gallery scene and the out-front sensibility showcased in "Steel Queer n'at," a queer cabaret.

"I wanted to find a really cool scene, something that I could be a part of," says Horvath. "I wanted to meet people, find a house and settle down. Suddenly, there was this burst of energy that I hadn't witnessed in Pittsburgh before and I was jealous that I wasn't a part of it."

Horvath returned to Pittsburgh in early 2009, landed a job and reworked her portfolio as Reconstructing Ideas, a one-woman art and design studio with a companion Etsy shop. Next on the list was establishing a personal connection. When a friend insisted on bringing her to the Lez Liquor Hour at the Firehouse Lounge, she met Kristy Lumsden, a photographer who also hadn't planned on being there that night.

Early 2009, the height of the Great Recession, is a strange time to make a risky relocation. That's how strong the Pittsburgh pull is. More generically, Horvath is describing a sentiment percolating in many Rust Belt Refugees. The story of "Buffalo Unbound":

Writing about the economic collapse and social unrest of her 1970s childhood in Buffalo, New York, Laura Pedersen was struck by how things were finally improving in her beloved hometown. As 2008 began, Buffalo was poised to become the thriving metropolis it had been a hundred years earlier—only instead of grain and steel, the booming industries now included health care and banking, education and technology. Folks who'd moved away due to lack of opportunity in the 1980s talked excitedly about returning home. They missed the small-town friendliness, and it wasn't nostalgia for a past that no longer existed—Buffalo has long held the well-deserved nickname the City of Good Neighbors. The diaspora has ended. Preservationists are winning out over demolition crews. The lights are back on in a city that's usually associated with blizzards and blight rather than its treasure trove of art, architecture and culture.

Now is a good time for shrinking cities to reach out to their wayward expatriates. We want to move back. Well, here's a hint from Colorado: Help!

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