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Rust Belt renaissance in global spotlight As host to the G-20, Steel City showcases economic comeback

If there's a road map to Rust Belt renaissance, a model of postindustrial success, it may be in Buffalo's one-time steelmaking soul mate, a city once described as hell with the lid off.

The leaders of the world's economic powers convened there Thursday for the two-day Group of 20 summit, prompting the question, "Why Pittsburgh?"

"It's a wonderful story of redemption, renewal and renaissance," said David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It's also a story of pitfalls and stereotypes and of a city still facing serious economic challenges.

"There's still litter on the streets, you can't fly anywhere from our airport, and it's still hard to keep our young people here," Shribman added. "Having said that, there may not be a better place to live in the United States."

Sound like Buffalo?

Without a doubt. The difference is that Pittsburgh has gone further and done more in the 30 years since its once-dominant steel industry died.

Today, it can boast of a diversified economy, a cleaner environment and an enviable quality of life.

Gone are the smoke-belching steel plants, replaced by world-class universities, hospitals and museums.

Pittsburgh also is a leader in green technology as evidenced by the new energy-efficient convention center, where G-20 leaders meet today.

"We're proof there is life after your dominant industry goes away," said Christopher Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research. "All we were were steel. There was nothing to replace it when it went away."

At the top of the G-20 guest list is President Obama, who, in an interview with the Post-Gazette, suggested that Pittsburgh is a comeback city well-suited to succeed London and Washington as host to a global summit on economic growth.

Today, the region's largest employer is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, an $8 billion health care institution with 50,000 employees, 20 hospitals and 400 outpatient centers.

It also is home to two large universities -- Carnegie Mellon, a national leader in engineering and robotics, and the University of Pittsburgh -- and some of the nation's wealthiest charities and foundations.

Together, they provide a powerful economic engine, a machine strong enough to turn around an economy that many had considered on life support.

Even more important, at least in the eyes of football-crazy Buffalo, it's that the only city with six Super Bowl victories.

"There's definitely a positive story to be told," Briem said. "The scale of joblessness we had was amazing. The conclusion and speculation about our future was really quite cataclysmic."

Not everything is right with Pittsburgh, of course, and perhaps the biggest reminder of that is the "tent city" erected in the Hill District, a largely black neighborhood.

Organizers say the temporary home for the unemployed and the poor is intended as a protest against G-20 members that outsource jobs and bail out banks, not people.

It also is a reminder of the economic obstacles still facing Pittsburgh.

"The phrase that gets tossed around a lot here is that we don't boom, so there's nothing to bust," said Eric Montarti, a senior policy analyst at the Allegheny Institute, a local think tank.

Abandoned housing? Pittsburgh has its share.

Joblessness? The unemployment rate is below the national average, but lackluster job gains continue to plague the region.

Even worse, Pittsburgh is the only U.S. city to lose population four decades in a row. It now has about 310,000 people, or about half what it had at its peak.

The former steel capital also has the dubious distinction of being the only major metropolitan area where deaths now outnumber births.

"We educate some of the brightest young people in the world," said Shribman, who once was a reporter for The Buffalo News and who won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished beat reporting when he was based in Washington for the Boston Globe. "If only we could keep them, even 5 percent of them."

Chief among Pittsburgh's challenges is a government burdened by high taxes and spending and huge legacy costs, most notably pensions and retiree health care.

Sound familiar?

The city teetered on insolvency for years and, like Buffalo, had a state board overseeing its troubled finances.

"The city is in dire straits," Montarti said. "It's the heart of southwestern Pennsylvania, and it needs to be fixed."

That said, there are signs of renewal.

The region has benefited greatly from its focus on education and health care.

Together, those two economic sectors have added 40,000 workers since 2000, accounting for virtually all of the region's net new jobs.

Briem said the challenge is to better capitalize on those those assets, most notably their reputation as national centers for cutting-edge technology.

If that happens, jobs and start-up companies are sure to follow.

"Pittsburgh is succeeding because we've gotten beyond steel," Briem said. "Certainly, health care and education have been large growth engines. The challenge for us now is commercializing our innovation."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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