Sunday, February 29, 2004

Similar cities share drain of young people


Special report: Downtown Decisions

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Pittsburgh's South Side is a magnet for young people. At Smokin' Joe's Saloon, James Kaiser (from left) Nicole King, Jordan Webster, Elizabeth Windram and Jamie Whetzel talk about the city's entertainment district.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/STEVEN M. HERPPICH

PITTSBURGH - In many ways, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati could be considered twin cities. They are mature cities of character and tradition.

But do young people find them attractive?

Each city rose to prominence in the 19th century as an industrial powerhouse, and each has hemorrhaged business and population to the suburbs since the 1950s.

Cincinnati has a world-class symphony orchestra, the Reds and one-of-a-kind chili; Pittsburgh offers strong support for fine arts, the Pirates and Primanti Bros. - a sandwich shop that heaps cole slaw and french fries atop pastrami, sausage or other sandwich meat.

And the cities share the distinction of being considered among the most undesirable places to live if you're young and single.

SPECIAL REPORT:
DOWNTOWN DECISIONS
Private effort gathers steam
Huge task awaits development expert

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Pittsburgh ranked last in the annual Forbes survey last year of the 40 largest metro areas - just behind Cincinnati. In fact, according to Forbes.com, Cincinnati avoided the bottom only because civic-minded locals "rushed to the poll in the last days of voting."

That rush underscores the frustration of civic and corporate leaders as well as young professionals in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Forbes poll may be unscientific and tongue-in-cheek, but economists and corporate leaders say the effort to attract and keep young, tax-paying workers is vital to keep the economy of each city thriving.

Moreover, developers say it is young professionals who are the linchpin of residential revival for such areas as Over-the-Rhine.

Leaders in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh say the problem is very real.

Pittsburgh's core county, Allegheny, has the oldest population in the nation outside Palm Beach, Fla. And Census data show that Cincinnati and Hamilton County are losing young people at an alarming rate. During the 1990s, Hamilton County lost 6 percent of county residents 25 to 34 years old - a higher rate than all but nine of the nation's 75 largest metro counties.

Both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have responded with massive development projects aimed at building excitement and vibrancy and with civic campaigns to court young professionals.

Pittsburgh's $1.1 billion riverfront investment, under the direction of Stephen Leeper, has yielded two new professional sports stadiums, a new convention center, restaurants, shops and a park. A Columbus-based developer, Continental Real Estate Cos., has been tapped to build $240 million worth of new offices, residential units, shops and parking garages between the stadiums.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County, too, spent $1 billion-plus on two riverfront stadiums, roads and other infrastructure. And now downtown Cincinnati leaders have zeroed in on creating fun, exciting places to live, in part to appeal to young professionals. The new private development group Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) believes square one will be Fountain Square.

So, has the sparkle of Pittsburgh's development created a buzz in the 20-30 something crowd? Depends on whom you ask.

Barry Mayer, 28, a Pittsburgh native, recently returned home after living in Cincinnati for a few years. He believes Pittsburgh's emerging North Shore district and South Side outclass Cincinnati for hip places to meet and mingle.

"Pittsburgh has a nightclub scene far better than Cincinnati," said Mayer, who works as an industrial salesman and in recent years lived in Mount Lookout and Mount Adams. "The closest thing Cincinnati has is MainStrasse (in Covington). Main Street doesn't have enough."

Mayer's words are not falling on deaf ears.

3CDC, the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce and others envision an expanded Main Street entertainment district to enhance residential interest in Over-the-Rhine.

Memphis developer John Elkington last year floated the idea of building a brewery and a Bootsy Collins nightclub on Main Street. Discussions are continuing.

But Pittsburgh still hasn't achieved that hard-to-quantify sense of place enjoyed by big cities such as Chicago or New York, said Jamie Whetzel, 25, a University of Pittsburgh law student.

"I love Pittsburgh, but you really have to search for a good time," Whetzel said. "In Chicago, it just kind of falls into your lap."

It might not be fair to compare entertainment in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati with the Big Apple and the Windy City.

But good times are not the only consideration. Several Pittsburgh young professionals said young people leave to pursue opportunity - not avoid boredom.

"The problem is they're not attracting new jobs here," said Dean Ronstadt, 27, of Bethel Park. "People don't mind spending public money for improvements if the city is working to keep up its end of the bargain - that is, creating the jobs and keeping businesses here."

Some young professionals in Cincinnati who were quick to criticize the big-ticket riverfront are willing to give the Fountain Square makeover a chance.

Nick Spencer, founder of the young professionals group Cincinnati Tomorrow, said the "jury's still out" on whether Cincinnati's efforts will help recruit young workers. He likes the ideas promoted by 3CDC.

3CDC is hoping that the work of Leeper and others in creating new life in Cincinnati's core areas will foster not only quality of life enhancements, but also the investment in property and jobs.

"You do have to give them a little bit of time to see what they are going to do," Spencer said. "We're really at a point where it can go either way."

E-mail kalltucker@enquirer.com




SPECIAL REPORT: DOWNTOWN DECISIONS
Private effort gathers steam
Huge task awaits development expert
Similar cities share drain of young people

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