At issue | May 16 Tom Eblen column, "Pittsburgh reinvented itself — will we? Kentuckians must work together, avoid complacency"
PITTSBURGH — Last month, a delegation of business and civic leaders from Lexington joined a group from Louisville to travel to my hometown to study our region's 30-year economic, cultural and environmental transformation.
Our visitors learned how we picked ourselves up after the collapse of the steel trade in the early 1980s — how we built a stronger, diverse regional economy based on existing industries and innovation out of the academic and medical communities; how arts and culture drove downtown revitalization; how we cleaned up our skies, rivers and brownfields, and how we organized leadership to create a more welcoming business climate and improve our quality of life.
But what's not often so thoroughly examined is the deliberate effort that went into changing our region's image across the country and around the world once that transformation was in full swing.
Few people realize that Pittsburgh recovered all of the 100,000 jobs lost to the collapse of steel by the early 1990s. And by 2000, the diversification of the regional economy — with new growth in life sciences, information technology, energy and advanced manufacturing — was well underway.
But efforts to remake the region's image suffered fits and starts throughout the 1990s and first half of this decade.
When I joined the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in 2006, people still talked about Pittsburgh as a rusted-out former steel town with few prospects for prosperity. That year, though, we launched a comprehensive effort to change those perceptions. It wasn't just an advertising campaign. It was a full-scale public-relations outreach initiative strategically designed to support our regional economic development, talent attraction and tourism promotion plans.
Over the course of three years, we leveraged stories about the academic and arts communities, business expansions and relocations, innovations by local companies and occasions ranging from Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary to major sporting events in order to earn more than a billion positive media impressions worldwide.
We worked with the presidential campaigns of then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama to make them fully aware of our region's comeback story by the time they stumped through Pennsylvania in 2008.
And instead of talking about another distressed rust-belt community, they spoke of Pittsburgh's entrepreneurial culture and leadership in green building. President Obama called Pittsburgh "a national model for economic transformation." And in 2009, he chose Pittsburgh to host the G-20 because he believed there were lessons for the world in our regional reinvention.
That decision created a new wave — more like a tsunami — of international media interest, bringing 3,500 journalists to Pittsburgh in the months and days leading up to the summit. At last count, more than 7,000 stories about the Pittsburgh transformation have been published or broadcast around the world as a result of our G-20 efforts.
On the heels of that coverage, the United Nations selected Pittsburgh as North American host city for its 2010 World Environment Day celebration, conventions for which Pittsburgh was not previously in the running have been booked, and more companies are considering the region in decisions about where to locate new operations.
That's what makes this half of the equation — strategic regional promotion — so important to groups looking for lessons in Pittsburgh's transformation.
It's no coincidence that we launched this effort in earnest in 2006 and that Pittsburgh celebrated record years for economic development and capital investment in 2007 and 2008. It's no coincidence that outward migration is declining. And it's no coincidence that tourism activity has reached all-time highs.
These are measurable effects of a quality regional promotion effort built atop the existence of an already great place.
The Kentucky delegation left Pittsburgh with a lot of ideas about how to improve regional cooperation; strengthen the work force; lobby more effectively for education, research and economic development funding, and better promote growth opportunities in business sectors ranging from the renowned horse industry to emerging technology development.
Those should be at the core of an agenda for continuous improvement. But Lexington also needs a long-term strategic plan for regional promotion that extends far beyond what coverage will come from the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this fall.
I've spent time in Lexington. The countryside is beautiful. The downtown is vibrant and rich with academic and cultural resources. The people are friendly, and the atmosphere is inviting. You have a great place and great stories to tell.
The work that's required to elevate the region's image — to break through the noise of marketing efforts by those regions against which you compete for new business investment, young professionals and visitors — takes time and focus.
But this is the place that was once known far and wide as the "Athens of the West," and even as local leaders look for solutions to the issues that challenge you, there is tremendous opportunity to remind folks that Lexington is a world-class city at the heart of a world-class region.