Monday, January 21, 2013

Prototypical Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is unique. Sure, Providence has its own brand of Rust Belt Chic. The urban culture of Pittsburgh sets the standard. San Antonio discovering its inner Burgh:

“San Antonio is always reinterpreting its past,” says historian Jesús F. de la Teja, who’s been writing about the city for 30 years. “In the process, it’s turned into one of those distinctive American cities like New Orleans or Santa Fe. It continually sharpens its image.”

Despite all the sprawl, San Antonio is indeed distinctive. While researching the metro's talent migration patterns, I toured the funky neighborhoods. They oozed a strong sense of place, authenticity. As a diamond in the rough, I was reminded of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA) recently picked up on the comparison I am making:

A recent article published on Texas CEO Magazine’s website talked about the “brain gain” in San Antonio, citing a rise in the number of talented young people with college educations choosing to move to that medium-sized city – particularly to its more urban neighborhoods — to live and build their careers.

Sound familiar? It should, as we’re seeing those same trends in the Pittsburgh region, as I’ve noted here before. Similarly, the Alamo City is also seeing strong “return migration” of native sons and daughters who went away for college or to launch their careers. (We call them boomerangers, or as a colleague prefers, gumbanders.)

Pittsburgh is my muse. Studying the region's alleged brain drain problem led me to a new way of thinking about economic development. Focus on the people, not the place. That lens illuminated the flow of return migrants. Speaking in generalities, the gumbanders want the opposite of the suburbs.

Like cool cities sucking up all the college-educated talent, return migration to historic urban neighborhoods is indicator of the post-Innovation Economy. More from the PRA:

As a model for this new “talent economy,” the article cites Pittsburgh and specifically Carnegie Mellon University. It notes that instead of trying to lure graduates away in competition with other firms and locales, companies like Google and Disney are relocating right on campus. (Google has since moved to Bakery Square.)

The production of talent attracts innovative businesses. In the Innovation Economy the widget is knowledge and talent attraction is the name of the game. In the Talent Economy the widget is talent and brain drain is the name of the game. The outflow of CMU graduates to Los Angeles is what enticed Disney to set up shop in Pittsburgh. Jobs are following return migrants back home.

The same potential exists in San Antonio. The PRA piece notes a major impediment to the Talent Economy:

And while I am sure University of Texas in Austin has some powerful spinoff benefits, San Antonio does not have a CMU or a Pitt. Their major research university is one of the University of Texas Health Science campuses, which does about $200 million in R&D. In fiscal year 2010, that figure in the Pittsburgh region was just over $1 billion.

This is the Rust Belt advantage. Legacy costs are now legacy assets. Brain drain becomes brain gain. The quality of San Antonio's talent exports isn't as good as Pittsburgh's. If San Antonio wants to attract more business, then it will have to do a better job of producing talent. Develop people, not place.

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