Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh leaders seek lessons from Pittsburgh on chamber trip

The nickname might still be Steel City, but Pittsburgh is no longer a gritty industrial town on the edge of decay.

The city’s emergence as a hub for innovation and the arts will be explored by 116 local leaders this week on a visit led by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

Among the participants are Mayor Nancy McFarlane, school superintendent Tony Tata, Wake County Manager David Cooke and a host of bankers, hospital executives, developers and marketers who paid to go on the trip.

Starting Sunday, the delegation will spend three days hustling to presentations and tours on everything from Pittsburgh’s thriving arts scene to the pros and cons of fracking.

There’s also a get-acquainted session with top officials at PNC Bank, which became a major player in Raleigh after its acquisition of RBC Bank.

Twenty people left early for a stop in Cleveland, where they planned to tour light rail, bus rapid transit, commuter rail and streetcar services – all of which are planned in the Triangle. The Raleigh-based Regional Transportation Alliance led the trek to Cleveland.

Fracking could be a hot topic. A presentation Tuesday is called “Shale Energy: Economic Windfall or Environmental Disaster?” The technology involves pumping several million gallons of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to break up shale rock formations and release natural gas.

Harvey Schmitt, the chamber’s president and CEO, said his group is “interested in the continued study of fracking with the caveat that all appropriate environmental issues are addressed.”

“I don’t think we’re in a hard and fast place yet,” Schmitt said. “We’re certainly open to it as an opportunity for the region.”

Raleigh City Councilman Thomas Crowder asked his colleagues last week to take a position against fracking, but the council did not take immediate action.

Pittsburgh partnered with local universities to become a center for health care and innovation. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is now the region’s largest employer with 19 hospitals.

Rex Healthcare wants to study the formula. Just last week, Rex committed $10 million to create a venture capital fund that will invest in fledgling health care companies. The idea is to create what the hospital calls a culture of innovation.

The timing for the trip works out well, said Chad Lefteris, Rex vice president for support services.

“It’s sort of a new and growing piece of our economy,” Lefteris said. “They’re ahead of us, and hopefully we can learn how they’ve been so successful.”

Arts and education

The arts helped fuel Pittsburgh’s renaissance. Advocates work closely with foundations – many tied to old-money titans such as Heinz and Mellon – to support a robust array of cultural programs.

Raleigh can do more to partner with foundations, Schmitt said. “As this market matures with some of the wealth it has created, there may be opportunities for us.”

On the education side, school leaders will examine the Pittsburgh Promise Program. Students who graduate from Pittsburgh Public Schools or local charter high schools with at least a 2.5 GPA and 90 percent attendance record receive up to $40,000 in college scholarships for in-state schools.

The students don’t have to compete to get the money. They receive it as long as they meet the eligibility requirements.

Who’s paying for the trip?

Every year, the chamber organizes trips to U.S. cities with similar challenges. Last year’s visit to Denver, for example, focused on how to build support for mass transit, a timely issue as Wake County weighs a possible transit referendum.

The chamber is paying the costs for managers such as Tata, Cooke and Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen.

For elected officials, the chamber is offering a $999 per person government rate instead of the regular $2,150 per person charge. The chamber provided three scholarships for each local government body.

McFarlane and City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin are paying their own way, said Jayne Kirkpatrick, a city spokeswoman.

Two city council members will receive city funding for $999 each, Kirkpatrick said. The money goes into a pool with the chamber funding, meaning it is not assigned to specific members. Crowder will not take part in the trip; he said he needs to be at work.