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The old Pittsburgh way

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, November 29, 2014 9:00 p.m

Amidst the near-constant chatter about the “next” Pittsburgh and the “new” Pittsburgh, the “old” Pittsburgh came through for us again last week. U.S. Steel’s decision to build its new world headquarters on the old Civic Arena site is a bit of old-fashioned good economic news, another public and private partnership.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald refused to accept that Pittsburgh would lose U.S. Steel to some suburban office park or another part of the country. And like leaders before them, they engaged the corporate leader, in this case Mario Longhi, the company’s CEO, and he was willing to talk.

This has always been the Pittsburgh way. In 1947, when a countywide smoke-control measure met resistance in the Republican state Senate, then controlled by the Pennsylvania Railroad, government leaders handled their end. But without willing corporate leaders, including U.S. Steel president Ben Fairless, that first building block of Pittsburgh’s renaissance would not have passed.

Then, as now, the leaders hammered out the agreements, supported by state and federal officials and surrounded by top aides who crafted the terms. In this case, the nuts and bolts fell to Kevin Acklin, the mayor’s chief of staff and URA chairman, and Dennis Davin, the county’s director of Economic Development. It is a tried-and-true Pittsburgh strategy.

As in the past, this must all make sense on the private side as well. There are public subsidies here, a factor in urban growth here since Gateway Center was developed, and Longhi touted the savings, saying, “There is a number, and it is a good number compared to the other alternatives that we have.”

The agreement will save 800 jobs in the city, but the real test will be the degree to which it spawns future economic development. In a positive twist, 50 percent of the tax break the law provides to the company will be returned to the city for future neighborhood development.

These public-private agreements continue to serve us well. In the early 1990s, when it was feared that PNC would flee to an office park, PNC CEO Jim Rohr began negotiations with Mayor Sophie Masloff by saying, “I figure if we started as Pittsburgh National Bank, we ought to be in Pittsburgh.” Two new office buildings and about 10,000 regional jobs later, it is working.

And U.S. Steel, while not bearing the name of its birthplace, is just as synonymous. For better or worse, the “Steel City” and the steel industry grew up together. As far back as the Homestead Steel strike in 1892, it has been an honest relationship, and the outsourcing that once shattered lives has not been forgotten.

But it is hard to imagine living apart. They are us and we are them. Like the millworkers who once trudged these hills, day in and day out, Pittsburgh keeps putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward. It is the old Pittsburgh way. And it still works.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (joemistick.com).

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