Time to think small

Some people in Pittsburgh spend a lot of time crying about the big companies that have moved out of the city, lamenting the loss of the likes of Gulf and Rockwell, the demise of the steel industry, even the closing of Gimbels and Horne’s department stores.

Our penchant for blaming the companies that have left the region almost makes you think that the crybabies are looking forward to kicking Lord & Taylor around once it’s left Smithfield Street.

An antidote to this negativism is a visit to the next 3 Rivers Venture Fair. If you missed the last one, held in September, you’ll probably have to wait until early 2005 for the next one.

You won’t find U.S. Steel there, nor are you likely to run into someone from Chevron who wants to bring Gulf back to the city. What you will find, however, is an enthusiasm for entrepreneurial activity and an optimism about business and Pittsburgh that is refreshing and inspiring.

Most of the companies were small, some with just one employee, and lots had funny sounding names and were based on science that gave me a headache to try to figure out.

Too often, I think, we view economic development in terms of grandiose projects, like the attraction of a large company to the region that will provide an instant 200 jobs and be an economic engine for the region. That’s what Volkswagen promised in the late 1970s, only to take the tax breaks and run.

The real value will be that which we create for ourselves by cultivating the cumulative efforts of hundreds, even thousands of entrepreneurial-minded people launching tiny businesses with acorns of potential that just might grow into giant oak trees of technology. There won’t be a lot of FORE Systems, but just a few, even one, will have a ripple effect that will provide the seeds for perhaps dozens of others of companies to sprout.

Thinking big got us two sports stadiums, a third team asking for its own new venue and Downtown planners obsessing over what they’re going to do with the Fifth and Forbes corridor instead of letting the private sector figure it out for themselves.

Maybe it’s time to think small, to give the best and the brightest some incentives to do business here instead of begging for crumbs from the big companies from outside the region. And we should let the small ones do the big thinking.