A Lesson in Growth from Austin, Texas

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With the U.S. Census Bureau reporting continuing populations losses for metropolitan Pittsburgh, the region is one of only a few “large” U.S. metros reporting losses, putting us in the company of Youngstown, Ohio and Altoona/​Johnstown, Pa. This is not a good story. Companies often choose where to locate or expand in places people want to be. Losing population makes Pittsburgh look like, well, a loser.

I believe, however, that population statistics are a lagging indicator. There is important groundwork being laid in Pittsburgh, from revitalized neighborhoods, a nationally recognized food scene, continuing growth in the tech sector, and even an increase in passenger totals at the airport.

And such lifestyle factors including outdoor recreation and top-​notch cultural destinations are key attractors. This is not to discount good weather (usually meaning “less winter”) where Pittsburgh scores lower, or inexpensive housing, which is a Pittsburgh strength. And certainly an over-​supply of jobs compared to the numbers seeking them is a huge factor.

But what comes first: a desirable locale where people want to move? Or having pre-​existing jobs that attract new residents? I contend it’s the former.

Interviewing a University of Pittsburgh demographer last week, a local newspaper report noted that “demographers and economists typically point to job availability being more important than quality-​of-​life factors in driving people’s decision on where to live.” Let me offer a counter argument.

Last week here in Austin, Texas, Oracle opened a new “campus.” Unfortunately, it’s another office complex on the shores of downtown’s Lady Bird Lake, turning green space into mirrored glass and concrete. CEO Larry Ellison is touting the 10,000 — yes you read that right, ten thousand — new jobs for Austin. So why did they choose Austin in addition to hubs in the Bay Area, Santa Monica and Boston? “Austin is one of the key places we want to be because we think that’s where our people want to be,” Ellison said. And Austin, despite a median housing price almost three times Pittsburgh’s is still a very real bargain for Oracle’s California employees. And the weather is a lot better — warmer and sunnier — than Boston. So obviously lifestyle was a factor in Oracle’s decision.

Now let’s take this take this jobs-​then-​people versus people-​then-​jobs debate to another level. Jack Dorsey, the legendary founder of Twitter and Square, was speaking in Pittsburgh to a technology gathering. His advice to Pittsburgh is, don’t try to replicate San Francisco or the Silicon Valley’s model, and don’t wait for the tech giants to migrate here with offices. I say, why not? I understand part of his advice, given the currently reported un-​livability of San Francisco. But when Austin gets 10,000 new, highly paid jobs in one fell swoop — without all the tax concessions being demanded by Amazon for HQ2 — why wouldn’t any city want a piece of that action? Help me understand that logic?

The bottom line for me is that livability is an important factor for the long term. 21st century Americans, despite recent angst over our national political direction, are uniquely fortunate. By and large we get to choose where we live based on a lot of considerations, not the least of which is: “Do we like this place?” I believe Pittsburgh has “good bones” already and in very real and measurable terms is well on its way to becoming a magnet city.

Paul Scripko

Paul Scripko started life in the Mon Valley south of Pittsburgh and after attending McKeepsort’s Serra High School, Pitt, and grad school at Harvard, he’s had a career on Wall Street and in high tech, both of which allowed him to enjoy many of the world’s great cities. Viewing Pittsburgh from a distance resulted in his ongoing commentary about Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. He discovered that a bit of distance does indeed provide a better perspective. His goal is to prod Pittsburghers to recognize issues that need addressing, while embracing the region’s world-​class strengths and opportunities.

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