Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pittsburgh struggles to make name for itself

By Mike Cronin
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Buzz up!

It was The Iron City.

Then it became The Steel City.

Now, Pittsburgh is ... what, exactly?

With many components — among them, health sciences, education and technology — people disagree about how to identify 21st century Pittsburgh.

"I wouldn't want to brand just one thing. Producing an economy that's actually working — that's what's selling us right now," said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato.

After Pittsburgh enjoyed two days of worldwide attention hosting the Group of 20 summit last month, some wondered whether a brand name could help the city remain in the afterglow.

Supporters of the idea argue it would boost regional self-confidence.

"Someone needs to tell Pittsburgh's story," said Madhu Malhan during a recent panel discussion about branding the city. She is the New York-based vice president and director of creative branding for the U.S. division of Publicis, an advertising agency headquartered in Paris.

"It's beautiful. It's wonderful," Malhan said about the city. "You need to celebrate it."

Others say a branding campaign would be merely superficial, an ineffective method to label the area or recruit talent and companies. Word of Pittsburgh's prowess must spread organically, they say.

Pittsburgh Councilman Bill Peduto points out that cities such as Boston and Austin haven't become known as tech leaders because of branding campaigns.

"They did it through their own missions," he said.

Pittsburgh didn't become known as "The Steel City" because of an advertising campaign at the beginning of the 20th century. Others stamped the 'Burgh with that moniker because none in the world rivaled Pittsburgh's steelmaking abilities.

Another problem: Pittsburgh has no star. It's impossible to brand a city without one, said Lalit Chordia, CEO of Thar Technologies Inc. in Harmar.

"What we need is a few stars in a few areas. It doesn't matter which ones," said Chordia, whose company works in biofuels and pharmaceuticals.

But choosing among Western Pennsylvania attributes — including retailers such as American Eagle and Dick's Sporting Goods, energy companies such as Westinghouse and Consol Energy, or banking, health care or technology — would be difficult, Onorato said.

"That's why the G-20 came here," he said. "People know the talent we have and what the region has to offer."

As if to back him up, the United Nations Environment Programme this month chose Pittsburgh to host one of six global celebrations of World Environment Day in June.

Gloria Blint's company did attempt to brand Pittsburgh as an innovation capital a few years ago. She's a principal of Red House Communications, an advertising agency in the South Side which won a $3.2 million contract from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Blint said.

That effort was part of the conference's plan to highlight the city's 250th birthday in 2008, said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president for corporate relations.

Red House created the slogan the conference still uses: "Pittsburgh: Imagine What You Can Do Here." Ads included shots of Pittsburgh's skyline against an Antarctic background with a Carnegie Mellon University robot picking up meteorites.

But of the $3.2 million contract, Blint said, Red House was paid less than $1 million and many of its ads never ran.

Flanagan acknowledged that happened, but said the initiative's point never was to brand Pittsburgh, but to get people to participate in the anniversary celebration.

Flanagan is among those who believe branding the city might be a mistake.

"There's a danger in pigeonholing ourselves," he said.

Paul Wood, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's chief spokesman, said it's clear that Pittsburgh's successful transformation into a post-steel economy is due to "eds and meds," or its higher education and health care industries.

"I think that's a good way of thinking about the city," Wood said.

Among data to back that up:

• UPMC employs about 50,000, a 10-fold increase from the roughly 5,000 it employed in 1989;

• University of Pittsburgh spent $1.74 billion in fiscal year 2008, including $1.1 billion directly on goods and services;

• Carnegie Mellon University faculty, staff and students created more than 200 spin-off companies and 9,000 jobs in the past 15 years.

"Health and education now is this region's top employment sector and the only employment sector that has added jobs in every year since 1995," said Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg in an e-mail.

Venture capitalist Craig Gomulka supports the idea of branding Pittsburgh as a tech center – but cautions that might be premature.

"We need to be cognizant that we're really just starting to get our feet on the ground," said Gomulka, director of Draper Triangle Ventures, a Downtown company that invests in technology start-ups. "It's hard to name Pittsburgh (tech) companies that have established themselves and have thousands of employees."

About 8,400 technology companies comprising 11.2 percent of the region's businesses were based in 13 Western Pennsylvania counties in 2007, the most recent data available, the Pittsburgh Technology Council's annual "State of the Industry" report said.

Those companies employed more than 248,000 people, or 19.4 percent of the area work force, said the report released last month.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl thinks part of Pittsburgh's brand is that "it's a place where anything is possible, particularly technological innovation," said Joanna Doven, the mayor's spokeswoman.

"But it's not as simple as branding Pittsburgh a tech hub," Doven said. "You have to have quality of life, too" — whether that means improving K-12 education or reducing crime rates.

Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council based in Oakland, said Pittsburgh once was one of the five largest cities in the nation. Now it's trying to reinvent itself.

"There's cynicism that we haven't been bragging about our achievements," Russo said. "But in all fairness, there's nothing to brag about yet."

Pittsburgh nicknames, past and present

The Iron City: Among the earlier nicknames, it heralded iron as the paragon of regional industrial strength from the mid- to late-1800s, before iron gave way to steel.

The Steel City: Unparalleled steel industry leader for more than a century.

The City of Champions: Coined when the Steelers and University of Pittsburgh Panthers football team held championships simultaneously; used in the 1970s when the Pirates and the Steelers were tops in their games; enjoying a resurgence with the Steelers and Penguins holding championships.

Roboburgh: Coined by The Wall Street Journal in 1999, giving a nod to Carnegie Mellon University's preeminence in robotics; today, CMU is home to the Oakland-based Robotics Institute, which runs The National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville.

"Eds and Meds": Area institutions of higher education and health sciences facilities employed about 233,700 last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Green Building Center: Ranked seventh among U.S. cities as of March 2009 with 33 LEED-certified buildings, according to the Green Building Alliance in the South Side Flats.

Technology Hub: A $14.5 billion annual payroll from tech companies, representing 27.5 percent of the region's wages, according to the Pittsburgh Technology Council in Oakland.

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