They rave about the food and the trails for walking or biking it off. They’re impressed by the robotics and tech startups, and the way we’re polishing the grit off urban neighborhoods for a new, hip vibe.
National news outlets are paying homage to Pittsburgh more than ever it seems—to the point that they are even mentioning all the press and praise heaped upon our city.
The city tops travel writers’ lists for its cuisine, its friendliness, leisure activities, and its ballpark. It ranks among the best cities for families and retirees. Huffington Post calls it “the coolest American city you haven’t been to.” And in one week this past month The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo News all paid tribute.
“Pittsburgh’s on a roll and it’s a fun time to be selling the city and the region,” says Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. “Everybody seems happy. Anymore, people don’t say, ‘Why Pittsburgh?’ They say, ‘Oh, Pittsburgh.’”
But some wonder whether all of the publicity will accelerate gentrification in parts of the city and ruin the authentic nature of Pittsburgh. There’s a keen desire to keep it real here. As City Planning Director Ray Gastil emphasized during a recent talk to community leaders, “We are not the new Portland.” (The audience cheered.)
And some worry that the city’s assets, such as parks and the arts, don’t get their share of publicity, while others note that accolades won’t add up to sustainability without the required investment that brings new people.
“We put out the idea that there’s a wealth of things happening in the region but the national and international media seem to gravitate toward certain story ideas and I suspect it begins to feed itself,” says Bill Flanagan, chief corporate relations officer for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
“They binge on certain aspects . . . I don’t know how much we can do to control it. Media tend to go in cycles and we tend to respond, plant the seeds and hope they’ll binge on that down the road.”
VisitPittsburgh tracks the publicity and finds third-party endorsements of Pittsburgh as a destination helpful to luring visitors, some of whom might locate here, says Craig Davis, president and CEO.
“When we get accolades about our food, for example, this is right in our wheelhouse and we use it to our advantage,” Davis says. Tourism is a $5.6 billion industry in Allegheny County, responsible for 40,000 jobs. “When you’re bringing outside money into an economy, that’s the best kind of money to have; you’re not just trading money among yourselves.”
Despite the significant press, new Census Bureau estimates show the Pittsburgh metropolitan area lost 5,051 people last year. It’s down 3,240 overall since the 2010 census, the only one of the nation’s 30 largest metro areas to have lost population.
That worries Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, who works to cultivate relationships with investors outside the region, because telling the city’s story isn’t enough.
“There’s not real investment happening here and let’s face it, that’s what matters,” says Russo, who acknowledges she’s “the biggest fan” of cool things happening in Pittsburgh but she’s troubled by the population loss.
Pittsburgh doesn’t need to grow as quickly or as much as Raleigh, N.C., but it needs to keep up, Russo says. “It’s not a marketing campaign—it’s not the days of New York saying, ‘We’re the Big Apple.’ The world is a different place and you can’t fool people. It’s a campaign to get investment here. It’s a matter of designing public policy to be attractive, and making sure the relationships are cultivated.”
Still, Russo is among those who thinks Pittsburghers don’t brag enough about the city’s assets, such as its 170 parks. “The parks are amazing,” she says. “Frick Park, in and of itself, is amazing.”
Meg Cheever, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, relies on such “park champions” to spread the word. She wishes national writers would pay more attention to the parks.
“We can get national publicity for significant projects but it would be great to be known, as Minneapolis is, as a city with a wonderful park system,” says Cheever. “A park is free and so it doesn’t have a restaurant owner or chef or brewer behind it who is intent on seeking publicity to keep business coming in.”