Thursday, January 03, 2013

Rethinking Pittsburgh

I have a love/hate relationship with place PR articles that show up in venues such as airline magazines. You see what civic boosters want you to see. Their job is to sell the city to business, talent, and tourists. Discerning the real from the hype is difficult. But that's not to say these puff pieces are useless. Pittsburgh in the latest issue of fDi (a Financial Times publication):

Although financial incentives since the 1980s have been attracting entrepreneurs,finding skilled workers or persuading them to move to Pittsburgh has proved to be difficult. “When I was recruiting people in the late 1980s, the standard response was ‘I do not want to move here’. Attracting talent was a challenge then,” says Mr Yablonsky, who at that time was managing Carnegie Group, a software solutions company.

To attract skilled employees to his Carnegie Group, Mr Yablonsky says that he“started a ‘boomeranger’ strategy”. The main premise of that initiative was targeting people who had links with Pittsburgh, either because it was their home town or where they went to school, and persuading them that Pittsburgh was a perfect place not only to work, but also start a family. “Eventually our company grew to total of 250 people, out of which ‘boomerangers’ constituted one-third of the total headcount,” says Mr Yablonsky.

Now Mr Yablonsky applies that strategy in his role in the city’s economic development agencies and says that a lot of businesses in Pittsburgh recruit their employees by searching for ex-Pittsburghers. Mr Yablonsky himself could be described as ‘boomeranger’. Born in Pittsburgh, he worked for many years in Cincinnati, Ohio before returning.

Emphasis added. I'm surprised that the fraction of boomerangers employed was so small. Pittsburgh has an image problem that still persists. Attracting outsiders is tough. It is what I call the "Ann Arbor Dilemma". Ann Arbor is in Michigan, near Detroit. Executives and other talent fear ruin porn. No matter that Ann Arbor is an attractive college town. It's in the Rust Belt, a hell hole.

The geographic stereotype sets up the Pittsburgh surprise, if you can convince the skeptics to do a little digging:

At the heart of the Pittsburgh revival story lies a strong research funding backing and a score of incubators helping local businesses to grow.“At the end of 1990s, I was aware there was a stream of research funding in south California and that it creates the environment for companies to grow. And I found out that Pittsburgh actually receives more biomedical research money than California. I checked it and it turned out to be true,” says Thomas Petzinger Jr, executive vice-president of Knopp Biosciences, a Pittsburgh-based pharmaceutical company that works on treatments for Parkinson’s disease and sclerosis.

Emphasis added. Pittsburgh? Yes, Pittsburgh receives more biomendical research money than California. All of California? Ask Petzinger. Definitely ironic if factual.

I sense the negative mesofacts impeding migration to Pittsburgh are quickly retreating. Newcomers will outnumber boomerangers. Inflows of venture capital will grow dramatically. The mental map of globalization will be amended. 2013 will be a great year. Suck it, Portland.

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