In 1970, Pittsburgh was one of America’s largest corporate centers.
The city built on steel and blue collar grit was booming. Then came 1979.
The Pirates won the World Series. The Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl in six years.
That also was the year the city died.
“We died,” Mayor Bill Peduto said. “The economic heart was ripped out of this region.” After the steel-driven boom, things went bust. Unemployment spiked at 19 percent.
While some sought to revive Pittsburgh’s industrial glory, other leaders took a different tact, seeing that investments in tech were the foundation of the future economy.
Peduto, who was re-elected to a second term in November, shared that stark assessment – and his take on the region’s rebirth – at the close of a three-day Hampton Roads Chamber trip.
In an interview with Inside Business and remarks to the group, the mayor credited decades of determination, higher education and collaboration among the factors that helped Pittsburgh turn the tide bust to boom.
The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University “were laying the groundwork as ... (recently) as the 1970s in robotics and artificial intelligence and predictive analytics,” said Peduto, who met with the Virginia guests at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers.
Thanks to those investments in technology, health care and life sciences, people can build their careers locally and are less likely to leave for new or better opportunities.
Economic collaboration came only after a crisis, however.
“Unfortunately, what built (collaboration) was getting knocked down to our knees, with the understanding that the only way that we would dig ourselves out was by working together,” Peduto said.
Back in the 1980s, “there were no federal bailout plans for us. We had to find a new way to get out of a deep depression.”
Trust and communication, Peduto continued, keep collaboration going.
“I think there’s a civic pride that doesn’t allow us to work against one another but tries to find where everyone’s own place is and then supports that,” he said. “It goes far beyond politics. It combines government with corporate, corporate with foundation, foundation with institution. And everyone sits at a round table. That’s really the secret part of why Pittsburgh was able to come back.”
The participants of the trip’s opening panel discussion echoed that sentiment.
They were: Bob Hurley, director of Allegheny County Economic Development; Scott Baker, vice president and chief government relations officer for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and David Ruppersberger, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.
Bill Flanagan, chief corporate relations officer for the Allegheny Conference, moderated the event. The conference is a business and economic consensus building organization representing 10 counties.
About two decades ago, “we would literally chase any job, a $7.50 an hour job. We would put a proposal together and go after it. And quite frankly, we figured out that was the wrong way to do it,” Hurley said. Instead, the region’s municipalities decided to work together to “stop spending our time and effort chasing the same product, the same opportunity, wasting resources.”
Economic inquiries and opportunities are steered to the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. It’s an affiliate organization of the Allegheny Conference which serves as a front door for organizations wanting to do business in southwestern Pennsylvania.