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KDKA Investigates: Business leaders trying to reverse course after 'Pittsburgh pause'

KDKA Investigates: Business leaders trying to reverse course after 'Pittsburgh pause'
KDKA Investigates: Business leaders trying to reverse course after 'Pittsburgh pause' 04:08

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Some are calling it the "Pittsburgh pause." After years of good press, optimism and growth, the city and the regional economy seem to have hit a wall. 

While all cities and metropolitan areas suffered through the pandemic, some have bounced back better than others, but by many indications, Pittsburgh is not one of them.

What needs to be done to get the region back on track? 

When developers transformed the East Liberty YMCA into the hipster Ace Hotel, the national press said it was confirmation Pittsburgh had arrived, cementing its status as a rising star in American cities, the new place to be for tech companies and young workers. 

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ace Hotel closed and the positive press has ceased, and the rest of the region's economy has yet to regain its footing.

"We're stuck. We're stuck right now," said former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy. 

Downtown has hollowed out, some tech firms have folded and after years of stability, the region is losing people and workers rather than attracting new ones.

"If we don't become proactive, we get left behind because the rest of the world is moving forward," Murphy said. 

Murphy, who now advises other cities on how to foster economic development, says the Pittsburgh region is losing out, failing to capitalize on its two major assets: technology and energy. 

So far, new companies aren't sprouting up around the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County to make products out of the plastics set to be made there. 

And although Carnegie Mellon University is a world leader in artificial intelligence, computer software and robotics, places in neighboring Ohio are instead now landing multi-billion dollar deals to manufacture computer chips.

"Pretty much every day there is a major announcement of a big corporation announcing that they're building a chip facility or a research facility, and we've not been on that radar and that's what worries me. How do we get in front of that?" Murphy said. 

As a commercial real estate lawyer, Kirk Burkley is especially concerned about the state of Downtown where crime and vagrancy have contributed to the reluctance of office workers to return. 

Just recently, in another blow to Downtown, Highwoods Properties put PPG Plaza up for sale and is looking to unload others, saying it will concentrate instead on the hotter Dallas market. Burkley says this is a large part of our failure to attract and retain young skilled workers.

"We've got to bring people downtown working and we've got to figure out how to grow the region's population or we're not going to solve these problems," Burkley said. 

"Why companies are going to Dallas, Phoenix and other markets is they know that there's a steady supply of skilled labor that they can rely upon for the next 30 to 40 years. We got to make sure that as a region, we are informing companies that are looking that we have that labor force and actually help to provide it."

To that end, the Pittsburgh Technology Council isn't waiting to attract new talent. It has initiated a program to develop those workers right here with a program called Apprenti Pgh. 

"We need to really focus on those things that get to the market," said Audrey Russo of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. 

Despite the recent closing of tech companies like the autonomous vehicle firm Argo AI and the automated, vertical farm Fifth Season, the tech council remains optimistic of a resurgence, but says Pittsburgh needs to aggressively market itself.

"I'm still a believer. I'm bullish. I really do. I'm a believer that we have the capacity here, but it's not going to be that we can sit back, we can't sit back," Russo added. 

To get back its vibrancy, these leaders say Pittsburgh can't wait for good fortune to come. It needs to court businesses to bring jobs here and retain and attract young workers to fill those jobs to get the region rolling again.     

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