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Editorial: A Czech 'sister' / Pittsburgh and Ostrava have something in common

Monday, November 26, 2001

Pittsburgh's common efforts to improve its foreign trade contacts took another step forward earlier this month when Mayor Tom Murphy signed a Sister City agreement with Ostrava in the Czech Republic.

The Czech city is the 13th with which Pittsburgh has concluded such a relationship. Ostrava Mayor Cestmir Vlcek was in town recently, with Zdenko Trebula, mayor of Kosice, Slovakia, to explore with Pittsburgh businesses and banks possibilities for trade and investment. Their contacts here were organized by SMC Business Councils, supported by the Heinz-funded Central European Linkage Program, a project of the Air and Waste Management Association, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

At first glance, it is hard to see what Ostrava brings to the relationship. It has 16 percent unemployment, it needs investment, its labor costs are low enough so that anything it produces can compete effectively with U..S. domestic production. Ostrava offers low-cost industrial sites, a skilled labor force, and good transport links across Europe.

On the other hand, the argument that Pittsburgh should increase its overseas trade and investment links is inescapable. This area is behind in the foreign trade race. Because 98 percent of southwestern Pennsylvania companies are small with fewer than 10 employees, only 17 percent of them export; 20 percent of Pennsylvania companies export; the national average is 22 percent.

Furthermore, although trade and investment do not in general occur for sentimental reasons, it is still true that this region is home to many thousands of Americans whose origins lie in the former Czechoslovakia, which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

All things being equal, this is a reason to invest in or trade with places like Ostrava and Kosice, particularly when their mayors come here in person to knock on our door.

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