On a crisp, sunny November Saturday afternoon, the Seventh Street Grille downtown was the perfect place for Ronnie Bryant, the new executive director of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA), to discuss Pittsburgh’s amenities and challenges.
Between sips of soup and bites of salad and the restaurant’s specialty sandwich, he talked about what’s working in the region — and what still needs work. Born and raised in Shreveport, La., Bryant arrived in Pittsburgh in June and the Seventh Street Grille was the first restaurant he wandered into.
Dressed in casual attire with a looser, more animated attitude than his usual buttoned-down approach, Bryant is a big believer in Pittsburgh’s potential.
He draws an analogy between his experience with the restaurant and the region’s opportunities for success. He says as long as local businesses continue offering the same high quality while introducing new products, there’s no reason the region can’t flourish.
“Pittsburgh is one of the best-kept secrets in the country,” Bryant says. “We have a three- to five-year window [to make it work]. It’s Pittsburgh’s time and we need to take advantage of it.”
Bryant has been visiting each of the 10 counties that make up the PRA and has experienced the differences that make the region distinctive. He considers these differences beneficial, but says the outside world has no idea of what’s here.
“Pittsburgh’s no longer a dirty steel city, but that’s not the perception on the outside,” Bryant says.
The executive director held a similar position in St. Louis for the past five years and says St. Louis and Pittsburgh are similar and face comparable challenges — both have strong institutions of higher education and are transitioning from an industrial heritage while trying to encourage proactive leadership and build an information technology focus.
“Look at the growth of comparable cities, Cleveland, Indianapolis. Economic development challenges interest me, and you’ve really got something to work with here,” Bryant says.
He sat down with SBN to field questions about the region and its potential.
SBN: What’s the PRA’s biggest challenge?
Bryant: It needs to position itself among its regional economic development partners as a neutral broker in an effort to be the source of external communication with this region, so that all regional partners feel equally represented by us. We need a more intraregional communication system, including meetings, conference calls, Web site.
We’ve started meeting on a regular basis, and attitudes are beginning to soften. We need trust that we’re a neutral (entity). We have to be perceived (as) favoring everyone (all regions) equally.
What are Pittsburgh’s greatest assets?
The cultural district, the airport, the educational institutions, diverse neighborhoods, a strong work ethic, a talented work force. Our diversity is a strength; we have options.
You have a good product to market. Today’s tourist might have influence on next week’s decision-maker. We’re doing the right things. There’s no lack of effort to make this a better place.
How is regionalism achievable in Western Pennsylvania?
What is regionalism? We’ve got to start with a common ground, a foundation of common goals. The key is to identify what it is that makes Beaver, Butler, Allegheny (and the other counties) a better place. And what is the best way to position those counties in our marketing material?
What does it take to make people work together and to have the same goals? To have some degree of agreement on how to accomplish those goals and how to cooperate and trust each other in that execution.? That’s what it’s going to take.
What obstacles does the region have to overcome?
People have to work together. This is not a cohesive region right now; we need to change the way we do business. And we need to increase the number of developable sites in the region. We have to be proactive.
Economic development doesn’t just happen. The Waterfront, Northpointe and Southpointe didn’t just happen. They were the result of the state and counties putting in millions of dollars just to get the sites ready.
The PRA won’t be an answer to all Pittsburgh’s problems. We are a resource for local businesses. Seventy percent of new jobs in this market will come from businesses that are already here.
We work with existing businesses that are considering expanding or laying off or moving to a bigger building. We ask what we can do to help.
How do you attract mid-sized companies looking to expand into a new market?
Bring them here and let them see Pittsburgh for themselves. Our goal is to make business decision-makers realize the Pittsburgh region is a viable location for their business.
We need to put more money into media relations vs. advertising. We need a concentrated marketing effort. The best PR is word-of-mouth; you’ll try something new if your friend recommends it. We have to proactively get positive stories out there about Pittsburgh and aggressively (go after) relocation consultants.
We just want to get on the list. If they’re considering a new location, we say, ‘Just take a look at us.’ If we’re not on the list, we’re not being considered. If we are on the list and not making the cut, we can figure out why.
We do direct mail, target and go after these companies to let them know we’re open for business. Now is the time to get the country thinking about us.