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The transformation, to be continued

Pop City's very first issue heralded the dramatic transformation that Pittsburgh faced in the mid-2000s. As expressed by founding editor Tracy Certo, that optimism of 2006 still feels relevant today. Certo, now the founder of NEXTPittsburgh, originally wrote the story below for the inaugural issue of Pop City on March 1, 2006.

Yes, we’ve won the Super Bowl, and it looks like the timing couldn’t have been better for a world championship. Pittsburgh, which has already undergone the most dramatic transformation of any city in the country, is continuing the transformation in an impressive number of ways. Doubtful? Read on for comments from the new head of the Allegheny Conference, Jim Rohr, as he makes the case that we don’t know how good we have it.

Let’s say that somewhere in this vast country there exists a city known as an international leader in industry, innovation and entrepreneurship. It offers all the amenities of a larger one with fewer problems. It boasts the lowest crime rate of the top 25 cities and the shortest commute to town. It has, by all accounts, the most beautiful baseball park with a stunning view of a downtown skyline. Not to mention an expanded cultural district with eight major theaters that is already a national model, along with world-class universities, museums and cultural centers.

Where once this city was obscured by industrial smoke, today the skyline view from across the river is rated among the top three best views in the country. And downtown is booming — booming! — with one long-blighted area finally undergoing renewal and a projected 3,000 new residential units being built in the next few years.

If this scenic city — Pittsburgh, obviously — was a country in Europe, said one architecture critic, people would travel hundreds of miles to see it. It is a city blessed with a natural and beautiful topography and known for strong neighborhoods, ethnic roots and uncommonly friendly people. And — oh yeah — now it’s also known for its newly crowned Super Bowl Championship team.

If you described Pittsburgh without a name, people would ask for directions to get here, says Jim Rohr, ceo and chair of PNC Financial Services. “They would say, that sounds like a pretty spectacular city.”

With the wealth of wonderful things Pittsburgh has going for it, what’s missing? “The realization of how good we have it,” says Rohr. As the new head of the Allegheny Conference for Economic Development, one of the group’s immediate goals is to help change that. Pittsburgh has already undergone the most amazing transformation of any city the country, after suffering the steepest decline of any industry. What we need to do, Rohr suggests, is transform the way people think about it.

With the worldwide attention gained from the triumphant Super Bowl Game — and the thrill of victory still in the air — coupled with the upcoming events planned for the region’s 250th birthday, the timing has never been better to sharpen our own perspective of our region.

Pittsburgh is like the once awkward-looking teen that matures into a very attractive adult and yet still sees the old image when looking in the mirror. It doesn’t help that the media perpetuate the image in myriad ways. Overturning the negative attitude isn’t easy but with progress like we’ve has been making the past decade, it just might be hard to sustain.

“It’s not something that happens overnight. More visibility has to be given to the positive parts of the community,” says Rohr. And while that simply doesn’t happen enough, there’s plenty to report.

Like this: “Our economic growth rate is at the national average and so is our unemployment rate. We’re keeping young people at triple the rate of Boston and the cost of housing is below average,” says Rohr, who adds that “we have arguably the best health care system in the world.” And as he stated in his address at the Allegheny Conference last Fall, “what we’re doing in Pittsburgh is having an impact around the world in every key sector of the global economy.”

Or this: Pittsburgh was ranked tops of America’s most desirable places to live and 26th globally in an October 2005 study — based on stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure in 127 cities worldwide —by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

If there’s one thing that separates us from in industrial city that hasn’t rebounded successfully, it could be the fact that Pittsburgh is home to a large number of foundations which generously pump money into just about every sector of the region, from funding design competitions that resulted in an architecturally stunning convention center (the largest green building in the country) to supporting literacy and family support organizations. Next to the Gates Foundation, Pittsburgh boasts more foundation dollars per person than any other city in the country.

Want a Ph.D. in robotics? Only one place in the world you can get it: Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, the nucleus of research and the largest facility of its kind.

Care to live in a city that’s one of the greenest in the country? This is the place. We’re number two in square footage of certified green buildings. And we have the Green Building Alliance, the only organization of its kind to promote environmentally friendly building practices.

With all of Pittsburgh’s research and technological advancements, we’re high on the list for go-to cities for cyber-security, nanoscience and entertainment technology. Although we long ago lost steel, we’re now a leader in medical research and innovation and the world is watching. The first commercial artificial lung is being developed in Pittsburgh by Alung Technologies, launching sometime this year. At the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative, they are doing miraculous work in restoring and replacing damaged tissues and organs.

And here’s an interesting fact, notes Rohr. Over the next 10 years we’ll have a high percentage of our workforce retiring. The jobs will still be here, he points out, a positive factor for those choosing to move here, and a good sign for potential growth. One challenge? Recruiting from the 34 colleges and universities located throughout Southwestern PA. Another, he notes, is achieving diversity in the region.

The challenges and problems are plentiful, just as in any thriving urban area. But if there’s one thing this city has always been known for, it’s our comebacks. Of course. Just like those Steelers.

We all know how good we have it in that area. Maybe it’s time to appreciate more fully the big picture.

Mellon Arena and Alcoa Building photographs are copyright Brian Cohen. Photographs throughout the story text are copyright Tom Altany.
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