There was no single word repeated more often by Pittsburgh leaders than ‘collaboration.’ Pittsburgh’s recovery and growth has captured national attention and while elected officials and county executives do not hesitate in saying this “overnight success, was 30 years in the making,” they also look to each other for the credit of their success. Checking their egos at the door and joining forces to recover from staggering economic hardship, the Pittsburgh region began to think differently. Much of this success stemmed from merging into a united region that brings together ten counties and 130 municipalities over 745 square miles of Western Pennsylvania into one Allegheny County region. At the helm of their success is The Allegheny Conference with one administrator who oversees all the localities. Each mayor and Regional leader sit on the Conference and work together in advocacy efforts and major economic development. They speak as one voice and that voice has been heard.
It could not have been more fitting that the hotel selected for the duration of the Inter-Regional visit was The Renaissance Pittsburgh. If you visited Pittsburgh in the 80’s or early 90’s you have a distinct recollection of a gritty blue-collar town struggling after the fall of the steel industry, and with that, the departure of a generation of working citizens and their children. At one time, a city that ranked as having the second oldest population in the country, now has the nation’s third youngest. By contrast, the Hampton Roads region is ranked 29th.
The Pittsburgh of today is still the city of bridges, still industrious and proud, but it is vibrant, thriving, and part of an urban renaissance. The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel rose out of the Fulton Building, built in 1906 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the decades it served as an office building, WWII Veterans Hospital and later a nightclub. During the decline of Pittsburgh it sat vacant and in disrepair for over 15 years reflecting the state of the region. Now it is steps from the cultural district, overlooks the booming waterfront with kayaking, boat tours, and development and the views of PNC park and Heinz field in the background are visible from most rooms in the hotel.
When Pittsburgh’s former Mayor, Tom Murphy took office in 1994 he reimagined the future of the region which included building PNC Park, the football stadium and a convention center simultaneously. This bold and courageous leadership went against a referendum vote to build these structures. Murphy told the Hampton Roads visitors, “I had to reimagine Pittsburgh. The hotel you are staying in was an eye-sore. It’s now the most successful hotel in Pittsburgh.” It took an out of state developer to see the potential and to imagine the possibilities of what could be there.
The Pittsburgh metropolitan area now ranks ninth among the largest 100 cities for the amount of university research and development, and is leading the nation in fields like robotics, artificial intelligence and software. Harnessing the collective power of the 10 colleges and universities across the Allegheny region, the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, (PCHE) led a workforce development initiative to attract, mentor and train individuals in the surrounding underserved communities that would guarantee them jobs in the college or university system. Their Waterfront Development, Economic Development, Transit and Tourism industries all work together to attract visitors, residents, job seekers and employers to the area.
This is not to say that Pittsburgh doesn’t face challenges. They continue to work through racial disparity and are mindful of the impacts of gentrification. The Strip District which parallels Norfolk’s Railroad District, is in flux. Converting from a run-down former industrial strip to a booming silicon strip, where hi-tech companies have moved into formerly vacant warehouses. The biggest change was infrastructure development and creating housing in the Strip. All Pittsburgh housing development upholds a rule that 20% of housing be allocated as affordable housing. During our stay, the region experienced flash flooding and an officer involved shooting that received national attention. These are very real struggles that mirror some of the problems Hampton Roads faces today.
The Pittsburgh region worked to diversify their economic development and stand firmly on six diverse pillars of Advanced Manufacturing, Energy, Financial and Business Services, Healthcare and Life Sciences and IT and Robotics. Knowing they had to diversify and revitalize a fallen economy, meant providing opportunity to everyone.
Even with all of their assets, they don’t have what Hampton Roads has. Our military and talented veteran population, The Port of Virginia which serves as the gateway to the world, and our world class oceanfront can serve us better as we look at diversifying our economy. We need to harness our strengths; our universities and healthcare systems, our historical foundation and our natural beauty and build together as a region.
We know that we can’t continue operating in our current fashion of silos and competition between cities. Yes, it may mean conflict, it may mean hurt feelings and bruised egos, but we have the future of our region to consider. In a Virginia progress briefing at our board of directors and trustees meeting earlier in June, we learned that Virginia is exporting college graduates to other states, almost as quickly as we graduate them. We can’t sustain this type of loss in talent.
Current Pittsburgh Mayor, William Peduto uses the motto, “If it’s not for all, it’s not for us.” This is evident in all organizations working together in collective marketing and asset sharing. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Airport Authority, Transit and the University and Healthcare Systems all collaborate to build, grow and sustain their future. The Allegheny region contains 172 zip codes under one area code, 412. Hampton Roads consists of 378 zip codes under one area code, 757. Let that area code unite us. This is what our region must focus on, not dividing lines and boundaries. Outcomes are determined by investments made today. What is our path forward? Pittsburgh has offered us a model, it is up to us to act.