How Pittsburgh pulled itself out of the pit

PITTSBURGH — It wasn't too long ago that this Pennsylvania city at the confluence of three rivers was known for steel, ketchup, dirty water and even dirtier air.

A lot has changed, as 200 business and civic leaders from Lexington and 100 from Louisville discovered Monday when they arrived for a three-day visit organized by Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc.

"Pittsburgh is transforming itself," Luke Ravenstahl, Pittsburgh's 30-year-old mayor, told the visitors. "We're reinventing ourselves as a clean city, a green city, a city of the future."

After arriving on chartered jets, the Kentuckians took buses downtown and boarded a cruise boat to tour Pittsburgh's revitalized riverfront. It would have been impressive even without the sparking blue sky of a sunny but cold spring day.

Old industrial buildings along the waterfront have been converted into offices and apartments. The skyline is a mix of renovated old buildings and unique contemporary architecture, such as the environmentally friendly Alcoa Center with its wave-form glass façade that hugs the North Shore.

Ornate iron bridges from early in the last century have been restored — and painted yellow — to dress up the riverfront. Pittsburgh claims to have more bridges than any city in the world except Venice.

After the tour, the Kentuckians went to Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to listen to local leaders describe the transformation of their region's environment and economy.

One key factor was regional cooperation and collaboration — something the leaders of Kentucky's two largest cities hope to copy. As a symbol of that desire, trip organizers presented each speaker with a basketball dipped in both red and blue wax and signed by Maker's Mark Distillery President Bill Samuels.

Founded in 1758, Pittsburgh rose to wealth and prominence on the strength of its strategic river location and rich coal deposits, which fostered steelmaking and other manufacturing.

But by the 1940s, said Bill Flanagan of The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Pittsburgh "was living up to its name as a total pit." The air was so filled with coal soot that businessmen came to work with an extra white shirt so they could change at midday, he said.

Regional leaders came together to clean up the air, rivers and abandoned industrial sites. Then, in the 1970s, the bottom fell out of the steel industry, and Pittsburgh lost tens of thousands of jobs and residents.

Since the steel industry's nadir in 1983, when the unemployment rate hit 18 percent, metro Pittsburgh has created 180,000 new jobs. It now has 45,000 more jobs than during the steel industry's peak years, Flanagan said.

"Where we are today took 30 years; it was not overnight," said Dennis Yablonsky, the Allegheny Conference's CEO. "I'm getting a lot of calls from Detroit these days."

How did it happen? The Kentuckians were told that Pittsburgh's public and private sectors came together to reinvent the local economy by creating new business sectors in the region's core strengths: manufacturing, energy and finance. "We created a balanced, diversified economy," Yablonsky said.

One key factor was long-term investment in higher education, especially the region's major research universities: the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Thanks largely to that research, the region now has 1,600 technology companies and advanced manufacturing plants.

Research universities could do much more to boost Kentucky's economy if they were properly funded, rather than facing constant budget cuts, University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. and University of Louisville President James Ramsey said during an afternoon panel discussion.

"We have got to figure out if we're serious about investing in education," Todd said.

Pittsburgh also has made a big investment in improving its environment and amenities. The city now ranks high in most surveys of the best U.S. cities in which to live and work.

Government and business also have invested in the arts, high-quality development and good architecture. Kevin McMahon, president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said arts facilities don't pay for themselves, but they fuel the overall economy by making cities the kind of places where talented people want to live and work.

After the tour, speeches and panel discussions, the Kentuckians went for a night on the town, beginning with a reception at the Andy Warhol Museum, one of four Carnegie museums in Pittsburgh.

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