PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — It’s a tale of two cities — with two very different outcomes.
When the auto industry stumbled, Detroit collapsed under the weight of blight, crime and debt, and has now filed for bankruptcy.
But three decades after big steel went down; Pittsburgh is singing a different tune.
While the urban core of Detroit has hollowed out, Pittsburgh’s downtown is resurgent. The bustle of the lunchtime farmer’s market in Market Square reflects a new optimism.
“I’m extremely optimistic about the city,” said Traci Grajewski, of Murrysville. “I moved away from Pittsburgh for a good number of years and now we’re back and delighted to be here.”
Pittsburgh’s population, long on the decline, has now stabilized and is ticking upward, bringing back old residents and attracting new ones, like George Burns – an information technology worker – who just moved here from Dallas.
KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “How do you like it?”
Burns: “I love it.”
“We’re a resilient city. We’re constantly reinventing ourselves,” Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Peduto said.
Unlike Detroit, Pittsburgh diversified its economy after its engine stalled. Today, eds and meds are its economic drivers — universities, hospitals and their spinoffs.
Carnegie Mellon, in particular, has made Pittsburgh a high-tech mecca for technology giants like Google and is changing the city’s smokestack image.
“The mills never left,” said Peduto. “They just moved up the hills, and they’re called UPMC, and Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.”
But to attract and keep business, city government needed to get its house in order.
“When financial collapse was hitting, Pittsburgh’s leaders did what they had to do when they had to do it,” said Pittsburgh Finance Director Scott Kunka.
Unlike Detroit, which borrowed to balance budgets, in the late ‘90s the city of Pittsburgh laid off a quarter of its workforce – from 4,000 to 3,000 workers — shoring up city finances.
More recently, it bit the bullet and is pumping $13 million more a year into its underfunded pensions. Detroit, in contrast, is asking a bankruptcy court to relieve its staggering $1 billion pension liability.
“The pension reform plan worked,” said Kunka.
Still, Peduto says the city must not let fiscal discipline lapse.
“We’ve been able to keep our heads above water,” he said. “We’ve done a little doggy paddle, but we still needs to get to the shore.”