Seeds of Pittsburgh's Change Rooted in Steel's Decline

Article excerpt

In 1963, international economist Dr. Marina Whitman predicted the declining steel industry would force the reinvention of Pittsburgh.

History shows business and government leaders paid little attention to warnings from the then-University of Pittsburgh professor and other contributors to the Economic Study of the Pittsburgh Region published by the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association. They shelved the study, which suggested that overspecialization in heavy manufacturing would someday spell disaster for an industrial labor force concentrated in large firms and living in small towns dependent upon one or two employers.

For more than 20 years afterward, the region continued with business as usual, until the demise of the steel industry ultimately forced people to take notice and initiate change. Today, Whitman jokes that she'd love to say "I told you so" when she looks at how the once-Smoky City built on steel, iron and coal has evolved into a leader in health care, education and robotic technology.

"The economic activity in Pittsburgh changed tremendously since the late 1980s," said Whitman, 74, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business who served on Richard Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers. "Pittsburgh has reinvented itself."

The 1963 study forecast that diversification would be the key to ensure the region's economic growth and stop an outward migration of young people who were fleeing for better job opportunities. Still, economists say it was not until the mid-1980s, when many of the region's mills closed for good, that the tide began to turn.

Experts say it was a slow process that sparked physical and emotional changes, as towns with shuttered industrial facilities developed brownfields for other uses and workers accustomed to higher manufacturing salaries adjusted to lower-paying jobs in health care and service-related fields.

"We had been a steel-producing region for so long that there was not a lot of attention to diversification until we were forced to do it, kicking and screaming," said Christopher Briem, a regional economist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research.

Briem said when the nation went into a recession during steel's heyday, it was always magnified in Western Pennsylvania, which became accustomed to a "boom or bust" economy. But it wasn't until the plants closed forever that people realized the jobs were not coming back.

Diversification -- into health care, biomedical research, education, robotics and technology -- helped the region fare much better in the current recession, Briem said. …