Last month’s Pittsburgh Leadership Expedition sponsored by CommerceLexington and Greater Louisville, Inc. was both a revealing and concealing experience for a skeptic of such information tours. My enduring complaint has been that these tours appeared from the outside as mere junkets that reaped little, if anything, in the way of policy innovations and material rewards to the Lexington-Fayette County community. Too often, they seemed to be full of sound and frivolity signifying nothing more than a pleasant buzz in their wake and a sheaf of promissory notes from local politicians and business people never translated into human capital or forward local-regional policy.
Attending this jointly-sponsored, self-described expedition for the first time, I must confess to being quite impressed with the quantity and quality of the information presented by Pittsburgh leaders and the amount of food and entertainment offered by local businesses and financial institutions evidently dedicated to convincing attendees of the can-do spirit of local business and finance. Overall, these days of panels and presentations and nights of culinary delights and wine and spirits also fostered a corporate-inspired worldview demonstrating the critical importance of economic growth and corporate profit to Lexington’s and Louisville’s future.
What Pittsburgh Got that We Ain’t
Over two-and-a-half days, we were treated to some of the top talent from the business, non-profit, educational, cultural, and philanthropic realms of a renewed and revitalized Pittsburgh sometimes paired with notables from Lexington and Louisville’s movers and shakers. Among other things, we learned a number of lessons of the Pittsburgh renaissance that might or might not be transferable to our respective communities. These included:
—The catalyzing power of generously-endowed, locally-rooted foundations: It is no exaggeration to say that Pittsburgh’s comeback could not have been engineered without the existence of its major foundations and their timely and strategically targeted infusions of funding for public-private partnerships in massive urban renewal of the city, particularly along the riverfront. Whether for economic development, downtown residential expansion, educational opportunity or environmental repair, Pittsburgh’s foundations time and again stepped up to the plate and helped lead the charge in revitalizing a city that in the eighties seemed all bug finished due to de-industrialization, the flight of 250,00 jobs, and an urban population nearly cut in half.
—The immense value of a bold, compelling, and integrated vision of a city’s future: The vision thing, as the elder George Bush used to call it, often gets derided in local policy discussions and urban-county council meetings. But several Pittsburgh speakers underlined its crucial role in bringing their city back from the brink. Grant Oliphant, head of the Pittsburgh Foundation, stressed the need to fashion a vision that grew from an outline of “no place” toa sketch of “some place” into a nuanced vision of “our place.” He also emphasized that cities that are stuck on how to move themselves forward have not spent enough time thinking what they want to become (i.e., the “vision thing”).
—The economic role of the research I university and an allied medical center: Pittsburgh is blessed with two premier research universities—the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University. Alone each is a formidable force for change in the city and outlying region. Together and in collaboration, they are an irrepressible and synergistic engine for local-regional development. By working together, they have helped to transform Pittsburgh from an aging, declining industrial town to a youthful and progressive post-industrial city organized around a pioneering ecosystem focused on five sectors of cluster research, including information and biological and health sciences, and dedicated to facilitating technological transfer and small business startups. Epitomizing their close research collaboration and institutional cooperation is the fact that they share a single vice-president for development!
—Public culture and the fine arts as the face of change and iconoclasm: For a city so bent on downtown renewal and economic ascendancy, Pittsburgh’s culture and arts scene has been a significant player in making this former steel and smokestack town into a lively place to visit and a rewarding place to live. Again, foundations play a key role in enlivening the local and regional culture with grants for artists and other cultural workers and support for museums and other art and music organizations. The director of the Warhol Museum offered a side-splitting portrait of Pittsburgh’s variegated cultural scene and underlined how this city’s innovative social and economic realms are leavened by cultural institutions that challenge the conventional and the uninspired—whether in the social or political realms. Meanwhile, Kevin McMahan lectured his audience on the conversion of 14 blocks of Pittsburgh’s downtown from the dilapidated Red Light district to its reigning Cultural District—and all without intoning the name of Richard Florida and his creative class thesis!
—A weak political center surrounded by an active constellation of change-agents representing the business, academic, professional, non-profit, and philanthropic sectors:
Surprisingly, the attitude toward the political realm of most of the native speakers at this extended city seminar on urban revitalization ranged from indifference to disdain. Few accolades were extended to Pittsburgh’s leaders—least of all their young mayor. Instead, these civic leaders pointed to the loose coalitions of power and influence that were constantly being formed and reformed around initiatives growing out of a wide consensus among social elites and downtown movers and shakers about where Pittsburgh is and where it should go to deepen the driving vision embedded in that consensus. Despite this lack of confidence in local government leaders, they have benefited from a planning regime that seems to work fluidly in negotiating differences and conflicts as they arise and that incorporates a strong urban design review process to assure that the urban fabric of downtown Pittsburgh remains dedicated to high-quality architectural and environmental performance standards. That a rust belt city should pursue a downtown renaissance strategy grounded in the idea of the city as a work of art is a testament to its city dwellers’ capacity to find indigenous resources to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
The Lexington-Louisville entourage did not find Utopia or Valhalla in the City of Bridges. Its efforts to merge city and county governments have failed despite strong support among local elites. Its government administration is notorious for being the junior partner at best in innovative programs and projects—though it can be drawn along with prodding from the business and philanthropic community. For all of its touting of downtown and riverfront development, precious few of these projects have more than a light green tinge to them. The modest smart growth agenda of the city’s Sustainable Pittsburgh, surfacing in interviews with its directors, reveal an earnest effort at the grassroots level to achieve little more than a small and barely audible voice in major core developments.
Viewing from my hotel window the Cincinnati Reds sweep a three-game series from the hometown Pirates and seeing how sparse the crowds were suggests to me that the $281 million Heinz Field may not have been much of a boost to downtown entertainment and commerce.
A Trip or a Journey? Where Do We Go From Here?
What Lexington and Louisville attendees will do with these lessons remains uncertain. Past such tours have netted Lexingtonians little to nothing. CentrePointe set back some important lessons about building a downtown entertainment center for young people. The Madison and Boulder tours did little to galvanize an agenda for fashioning a working consensus around close town-gown relationships and truly inspiring and collaborative innovations. Greenville’s trip hasn’t advanced downtown urban design much, if at all. Beyond that, this community continues to be saddled with a state legislature unwilling to recognize the need to fund UK and the U of L to support their research clusters and historically defined missions at anything like the level necessary for them to serve the economic needs of their regions or more generally the state.
Add to the above the absence of philanthropic institutions from old money to foster the betterment of Lexington and its inhabitants, the Rule of 40 in the heart of the Bluegrass who remain a source of formidable resistance to real change, a mayoral primary campaign that was lacking in any transformative idea or vision for this community, and an urban-county council logjam that has meant legislative action teeters between stasis and incremental change, and you have a persisting local formula for political impasse, social stagnancy\and—at best—minimalist reform.
An important symbolic message was imparted to the attendees when the august and humorous minister Reed Polk gave a stirring benedictory closing to the Leadership Expedition that pointed to the difference between a trip and a journey. A trip, he said leads to a break; a journey leads to a breakthrough. Was the Pittsburgh sojourn a trip or a journey? A new beginning or the same old retread of past junkets? Progressive leaders and impatient grassroots citizens will have a hand in shaping the answer.