The future of Pennsylvania’s second largest city was uncertain a quarter century ago.
The city’s economic foundation, the steel industry, collapsed. Residents fled.
Pittsburgh lost about half its population from 1970 to 1990.
“I became mayor of Pittsburgh at a time that it wasn’t clear what was going to happen to Pittsburgh,” said former Mayor Tom Murphy.
He credits the revitalization to four things: finding the money and means to make important projects happen; smart land control; ensuring the municipality makes good deals with developers and power players (such as pro sports teams); and casting a big vision.
Today the city is home to about 300,000 residents. The metro area’s population was about 2.3 million in 2017, making the region the 26th largest in the U.S. By comparison, the Hampton Roads region is the country’s 37th largest.
But bold decisions carry a significant nonfinancial risk – not everyone will agree with you.
“If you’re going to make big changes,” he said, “you have to understand there’s conflict involved.”
Murphy was one of several current or former leaders to welcome about 30 visitors from Hampton Roads to the Steel City on June 19. A Hampton Roads Chamber delegation visited from June 19 to 21 to see and learn how the city built economic, workforce and infrastructure development successes from the rubble of the 1980s recession.
Participants heard from leaders in the transportation, tourism, health care, education, entrepreneurial and development industries, visited the Carnegie Science Center, a business incubator and neighborhood redevelopment projects.
Straining to be heard over thumping music and booming pre-game announcements at PNC Park – home of Major League Baseball’s Pirates – Craig Davis, president and CEO of Visit Pittsburgh, said economic diversification breathed life back into the city.
“Pittsburgh was a one-horse town. … (Today) we have tech, medical, banking, tourism. There’s a number of different things that can balance each other out,” Davis said.
Yet, the city’s steel and coal wealth from days past hasn’t completely eroded. In fact, it’s a source of deep and generous philanthropy and community investment. “As a result, there are many foundations that are based in Pittsburgh that backstop a lot of initiatives,” Davis said.
Davis’s regional nonprofit tourism promotion agency focuses on attracting and retaining conventions, as well as leisure and business travelers. He touted Pittsburgh as a compact, walkable city with a strong, nine-month-long tourism season.
“Once you’re here, you really don’t need to grab a cab,” Davis said. “There’s nothing that Pittsburgh does not have, and we really do punch above our weight class … because we have that (philanthropic) support.”
And when it comes to collaboration, Pittsburgh “is a two-phone call town,” he continued. “If you want to meet with virtually anybody, you can meet with that person. Good ideas are proffered here.”
Murphy also offered one more piece of advice on maintaining positive economic momentum: “Enjoy yourself today and tomorrow get back to (work).”