The former mayor of Pittsburgh told the 630 attendees of Wednesday's annual One Region luncheon they need to form partnerships and take risks to create the community they want to live and work in — and that others will too.

"You need to define your own story," said Tom Murphy, who served as mayor of Pennsylvania's second largest city from 1994 to 2006 and is now a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

Pittsburgh, once dependent on the steel industry, saw its population plummet when that industry declined. During Murphy's terms in office, he "initiated a public-private partnership strategy that leveraged more than $4.5 billion in economic development in the city," according to his Urban Land Institute biography.

In introducing Murphy, One Region President and CEO Leah Konrady cited a Pew Charitable Trust study on Pittsburgh's success regrowing its population of younger residents. It happened, Pew concluded because of "the close collaboration between the private sector and higher education institutions, a thriving tech-based economy, a relatively low cost of living, a rich cultural environment and outstanding food and drink scene, and the overall quality of life."

"Pittsburgh is different from Northwest Indiana; I don't want to deny that," Konrady said. "Every place is different from Northwest Indiana, which means that we are authentic. But there are certainly things that we can learn from Pittsburgh."

Strategy and vision

Economically depressed and heavily polluted Pittsburgh has become one of the country's most livable, according to several rankings, Murphy said.

"That will not happen by accident," he said. "It will happen because you are very intentional about what you want to be."

Murphy travels regularly to address city and regional leaders.

"The one lesson I've learned ... every city in the world is trying to figure out their place, where they fit in, because the rules are fundamentally changing," he said. "The big change, the big challenge, the big chase is, how do you attract talent to your town?"

Murphy cited Denver's decision to fight sprawl and congestion by building a multi-billion dollar transit system serving three counties. And Cincinnati business leaders spearheaded revitalization of the Over the Rhine neighborhood, raising $50 million to seed an effort that's transformed a depressed community, he said.

The population exodus from Pittsburgh left the city down and nearly out. "It was because all our young people left," Murphy said.

The city was "flat broke," he said. He decided to reduce personnel — including in the Police Department — and move $6 million annually from the operating budget to finance a $60 million bond issue that became a development fund.

During Murphy's terms, voters also agreed to hike the sales tax, and the city used tax increment financing frequently.

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The city bought old steel mills and other properties for redevelopment. Revitalization of an old Nabisco bakery spurred the Bakery Square retail, office and residential community where Google has established a significant presence.

Downtown, "we were a 9 to 5 city," Murphy said. Led by the Heinz Endowment charitable foundation, a red-light district became the city's Cultural Trust District. A public-private partnership built PNC Park and Heinz Field, homes of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers, and a convention center.

"It brings people together. It creates vitality," Murphy said of the projects. "There's a strategy and a vision about this that connects things that are seemingly unconnected."

Public access to the city's riverfronts grew from less than 1 mile to more than 30, and a trail system now stretches to the nation's capital.

"I can ride a bike from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., and never go on a road," Murphy said. "There's a whole economy on this Pittsburgh and Washington trail."

Projects also included redevelopment of a public housing community that made it a mixed-income neighborhood, and partnerships with Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to make Pittsburgh a tech hub.

"The pieces of the puzzle?" Murphy asked. "Know what you want; find the leadership, both public and private; build the partnership; understand you need to go after the talent, and then you need to build great places, not mediocre places."

"It's about whether you have the community and political will to kick the door down and reach for the future," he said. "If you don't take those risks together you'll never get there."

All hands on deck

"I'm sure there were moments when we all thought, we could be doing that," Konrady said after the presentation.

She and a group of about 40 public and business leaders will take a trip to Pittsburgh later this month to see some of its successes and meet some of the people involved.

The trip is the second of a planned three to regions a team of economists recommended as good. The first, last year, was to New Jersey. A third will be to Denver.

One Region has also established an organization of business and organizational CEOs called the Regional Opportunities Council intended to help create public-private partnerships.

"The public sector is critical in moving our Region forward, and it takes the public-private partnerships to do exactly that," Konrady said. "This is all-hands-on-deck, and requires partnerships."


Assistant Deputy Editor

Andrew covers transportation, real estate, casinos and other topics for The Times business section. A Crown Point native, he joined The Times in 2014, and has more than 15 years experience as a reporter and editor at Region newspapers.