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'Pittsburgh Today' study: Region rates well in job creation, economy
Transit uncertainty remains a problem
Sunday, February 19, 2012

A new report card for Pittsburgh shows that more people are moving to this area than leaving and that the region's increasingly diversified economy is generating jobs in education, financial services, energy and medicine.

"It's a total change for our area," said Douglas Heuck, director of Pittsburgh Today, an annual effort to evaluate the city's progress in 10 categories while comparing it with 14 similarly sized regions.

Since the start of a benchmarking project done by the Post-Gazette in the mid-1990s and picked up by Pittsburgh Today, Mr. Heuck said, "we were almost always among the worst regions in terms of job growth and a dynamic economy. Now, it's remarkably different. We're leading in job growth. Our unemployment rate is well under other regions and we have a balanced, dynamic economy. That's a big turnaround."

The Pittsburgh region, which had a population of 2.35 million in the 2010 Census, was evaluated in the arts, demographics, economy, education, environment, government, health, housing, public safety and transportation. The report assessed how Pittsburgh fared in those arenas compared to Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va.

A moderate cost of living, plenty of places for outdoor recreation, three professional sports teams and a vibrant arts community were likely among the advantages that attracted the 1,430 people who moved here between 2009 and 2010. Many of them came from New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., according to the report.

The newcomers "are people who aren't stuck with a home that's underwater somewhere else. They are coming because of the good press that Pittsburgh has been getting," Mr. Heuck said.

To some degree, the region's conservative ethos shielded it from the fallout after banks and financial markets collapsed in 2008.

"In terms of jobs, we didn't have any big wipeouts. We were a net gainer of jobs in the financial services industry, even during the toughest part of the Great Recession. That's an anomaly," Mr. Heuck said, adding that the region was "more conservative in terms of our business and lending practices. PNC Bank is a big winner throughout with its taking over National City."

While advances are heartening, Pittsburgh is hamstrung by an underfunded public transit system that reduced service by 15 percent last year and a public school system that graduates just 69 percent of its students from high school. The region has more than 1,133 structurally deficient bridges, an aging sewer system that threatens water quality and some of the worst air in the nation.

Of all these daunting problems, however, a lack of funding for public transit is the region's most immediate and pressing weakness, Mr. Heuck said.

"In any regional economy, the most important factor is the human labor and people have to get to work. Talented people expect a city to have a functioning public transit system."

The report includes responses from a telephone survey of 2,200 people who live in the 32-county Pittsburgh region, which includes some counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland. The survey, which asked questions about the quality of life, was conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research as well as Pittsburgh Today.

Of the 2,200 people surveyed, 367 were African American. More than 78 percent of the people surveyed owned their home; among African Americans, home ownership was just over 41 percent.

Nearly 18 percent of African Americans said they often or always have trouble paying for basic necessities such as housing, utilities and food. That figure is double the percentage of non-African Americans who experience similar hardships.

Interestingly, while the quality of life survey showed that African Americans are worse off, they are more optimistic, with 39 percent believing the nation's economy will improve this year and 37 percent expecting to see improvement in Pittsburgh's economy.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

First published on February 19, 2012 at 12:00 am
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