Here’s what Pittsburgh taught Charlotte about economic mobility and sports business

About 150 of Charlotte’s business and civic leaders visited Pittsburgh this past week for a three-day immersion aimed at learning about the city’s transformation, economic mobility efforts and professional sports facilities.
About 150 of Charlotte’s business and civic leaders visited Pittsburgh this past week for a three-day immersion aimed at learning about the city’s transformation, economic mobility efforts and professional sports facilities.

On the surface, Pittsburgh and Charlotte don’t seem to have a lot in common.

Pittsburgh is a legacy Rust Belt city still reeling from the collapse of the steel industry. Its post-industrial grit is woven into its identity while Charlotte grapples in the Sun Belt with whether it has an identity at all. Pittsburgh’s population has been declining in recent years; Charlotte’s is one of the fastest growing in the nation. Pittsburgh is the No. 2 city in economic mobility for its residents; Charlotte is dead last.

The cities’ struggle to overcome their respective challenges dominates headlines and political agendas. For Pittsburgh, it’s the effort to fill in the gaps in its economy once dominated by steel and manufacturing. For Charlotte, it’s the push to create opportunities for low-income communities, from affordable housing to efficient public transit.

Learning how Pittsburgh is transforming itself and addressing economic mobility was the goal of roughly 150 of Charlotte’s business and civic leaders for the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance’s annual intercity visit this past week.

“Pittsburgh has a sense of purpose. They’re coming back,” Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles told the Observer at the conclusion of the three-day visit. “Our sense of purpose is we can be the best in the country.

“We’ve done such a great job on housing. Now we have to layer on jobs and ... other options for mobility.”

David Tepper, the billionaire who bought the Carolina Panthers last summer, was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He hosted the Charlotte delegation for a discussion at Carnegie Mellon’s new business school facility that opened last year and bears his name.

Tepper told Brian Leary of Crescent Communities, the visit’s chairman, that helping to solve Charlotte’s economic mobility issues is the legacy he wants to leave.

“So if I had a long-range (goal), it’d be ‘hey this guy brought us a Super Bowl and also he did great charity work and helped start solving in more substantial ways (economic mobility issues),” Tepper said to applause.

Uptown development plans

Talking economic mobility wasn’t the only reason Tepper took part in the trip.

He’s made clear that he’s set on shaking things up at Bank of America Stadium. Tepper is a former Steelers minority owner who may imitate what that team has done in terms of urban development and alternate uses for the stadium.

“I think the Panthers culture was very rigid, very afraid to make mistakes,” Tepper said. “They kept things very tight. From a regional standpoint, previous management would probably be fine having eight football games a year there and nothing else.”

On the second day of the visit, Panthers Chief Operating Officer Mark Hart gave Charlotte business leaders a taste of what they might expect as the team begins work on developing land around bank of America Stadium.

Hart is the former Pittsburgh Steelers head of development whom Tepper hired last year, and has worked for decades with Pittsburgh developers and government officials on the North Shore development. That’s a massive mixed-use project that sits on the land between the Steelers and Pirates fields.

The project required millions of dollars from the city, state and county, and Hart said that’s an approach the Panthers could take, too.

The Steelers developed a master plan for the project in 2000. In Charlotte, Hart told the Observer, the Panthers will need to similarly develop a strategy keeping in mind “not only best for the community, but what’s best for our citizens, fans and customers.”

In Pittsburgh, the development will include offices and retail space, including bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues.

In Charlotte, the team has three open-air practice fields (two natural grass, one artificial turf) that take up 7 acres adjacent to Bank of America Stadium. But the move of the practice facilities to Rock Hill in 2022 will free up that land, which is also close to the future Gateway Station.

“When you’re doing urban development, it has to be a public-private partnership,” said Barry Ford of Continental Real Estate, the firm behind the Pittsburgh project. “Development follows great planning and great infrastructure.”

High-speed rail

At the conference, Tepper also made a public push for a high-speed train that would connect Charlotte to Winston-Salem and Raleigh. Fans in the Triangle, he said, could theoretically get to uptown for a Panthers game in less than two hours.

The track is already there and owned by the state, Tepper said. He noted that his audience included elected officials with clout.

“If there’s something that people in this building should do... if you can get that connectivity, to have an hour and a half or two hour ride to Raleigh, going 45 minutes to Winston-Salem... nothing would take off like that,” Tepper said.

Education and jobs

In a conversation with Lyles before the Charlotte delegation this past week, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called education “the great equalizer.” Improving financial access to higher education, Peduto said, helps the city build its workforce.

“The city of Pittsburgh offers students in our public school system scholarships once they graduate (high school), so it’s $7,500 per semester if they have a 2.0 GPA and have attended classes,” Peduto said. “That can be used for colleges in Pennsylvania and any vocational trade.”

But one of Pittsburgh’s biggest challenges is retaining those young college graduates, according to Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which recruits businesses to Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh has a number of high-profile universities, including University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne University. Roughly half of those students stay in Pittsburgh. “We’re worse than Detroit,” Pashman told Charlotte Regional Business Alliance CEO Janet LaBar at the event. Detroit’s retention rate, she added, is about 70%.

Pittsburgh has been working to recruit companies that offer high-paying jobs in tech, especially in areas like artificial intelligence, robotics and self-driving cars. German software company SAP has an office in the North Shore area, for instance. Facebook, Google and Microsoft also have offices in Pittsburgh.

Peduto also said that teachers are paid well in Pittsburgh. And the city and county have pushed for a $15 an hour minimum wage, nearly double that of Pennsylvania’s. That’s prompted other companies to follow suit to stay competitive.

“It comes from the legacy of being a union city, a town that respected workers’ rights and organized in the mines, the mills and the factories,” Peduto said.

The city also works to ensure that transit options like bus routes are readily available to workers whose jobs are inside the city center.

“Their transit center really works to get from neighborhoods to work centers,” Lyles told the Observer.

Learning from Charlotte

Despite its gains, Pittsburgh still has a ways to go, Peduto said, and could learn a lot from Charlotte.

Charlotte’s model for affordable housing — $50 million in bonds and an anticipated $50 million from the private sector — is the “gold standard” for what cities should strive for, Peduto said.

The Charlotte region added 44,500 people from 2017-18, census data show. Over that same period, Pittsburgh lost 5,540 residents.

Pittsburgh, Peduto said, didn’t experience the level of economic recovery that Charlotte did.

“In fact a lot of the people who became Charlotteeans were Pittsburgheans. They moved down for the opportunity that you saw during the boom.”

Now Charlotte leaders hope to improve their community for those transplants and others using all that they learned while in Pittsburgh.

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As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.