Pittsburgh looks to draw Puerto Ricans into its economy
Editor’s Note: This is one of several stories News is my Business will be publishing about the ties between Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico.
Pittsburgh, PA — Music and sports are two pursuits that cross borders and link cultures. This weekend, this northeastern city relied on both to convey its desire to boost diversity and attract more Latinos, which are significantly underrepresented in this community.
Rallying around the slogan “Pittsburgh: A place of opportunity,” 10 private-sector organizations have come together to spread the word of its intentions into locations where many Latinos live, and migrate from, including Puerto Rico.
As part of that effort, this weekend the organizations — grouped under the Hola Pittsburgh! movement — sponsored El Gran Combo at the JazzLive International Festival, to draw people from the region to come to the city and take a look at what it has to offer.
Hola Pittsburgh! is an initiative launched last year by Vibrant Pittsburgh, a nonprofit whose mission is to attract and retain talent, while fostering cultural diversity.
“We’re trying to attract people to Pittsburgh who are currently under-represented. Latino talent attraction is a focus,” said Melanie Harrington, president of Vibrant Pittsburgh. “We began tracking migration patterns of various groups and saw that we weren’t getting our fair share of this migration population.”
That tracking included Puerto Rico, which has lost more than 50,000 residents a year since 2010, and has yet to find a way to shut off the escape valve.
“If people are moving, then why not move to Pittsburgh?” she said.
At present, Pittsburgh’s Puerto Rican population is quite small, estimated at about 8,500, or 0.4 percent. Overall, the Latino community represents 1.3 percent of the total headcount, according to statistics provided to a group of journalists invited to cover this weekend’s push.
Pittsburgh currently has more than 22,000 job openings, which coupled with low cost of living expenses, a low crime rate, and educational opportunities for K-12 students, could entice people to make the move. Dozens of companies, from banks to healthcare to higher-education facilities, have taken notice and are looking to recruit, this media outlet confirmed.
Clemente’s spirit ‘lives’ in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh already has close ties to the Puerto Rican community for its evident love and respect for baseball legend Roberto Clemente, who is an important part of this city’s baseball history.
So much so, that his presence is felt all over town: his name is on one of three important bridges, his professional and personal history is the focus of a museum inside a converted former firehouse, while his life-size statue watches over PNC Park, where his Pirates now play.
“I think there’s a bilateral trade and tourism opportunity here that’s unappreciated,” said Dennis Yablonsky, head of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, who is credited for setting off the campaign to lure Puerto Ricans to Pittsburgh after numerous visits to the island with his Río Piedras-born wife.
“I know Puerto Rico is struggling, but there are some assets it can build upon. It’s a beautiful island — you have to leverage your tourism assets,” he said, naming what seems to be the most obvious option for economic growth.
Pittsburgh wasn’t always a thriving economy: in the late 70s and 80s it went through one of the worst collapses it has seen after losing most of its steel industry, its mainstay at the time. That crisis prompted the private sector to rally together, to “take inventory and figure out what we were good at,” said Yablonsky.
“Every place has assets, and we decided we would build upon them and then got the whole region behind concentrating on those things. I think Puerto Rico should do the same thing,” he said. “It has to be a P3 effort; the private sector absolutely has to be involved, as well as the academic and government leadership.”
While it took Pittsburgh’s private sector movement 10 years to move forward, it took another 20 years to see concrete results, he said.
“I don’t think Puerto Rico is in as deep a hole as Pittsburgh was in. I don’t think it will take Puerto Rico as long to recover,” he said.
While at its face, it would seem that Pittsburgh is looking to capitalize on Puerto Rico’s economic woes, the executives interviewed said both jurisdictions stand to benefit from professional and cultural exchanges.
“There’s already a connection because of Roberto [Clemente] on sports, but let’s expand it into culture, tourism, and doing more business. That’s what this is all about,” said Yablonsky.
Ron Alvarado, a Nuyorican whose mother lives in Juana Díaz, agrees. As chairman of the Pittsburgh Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he believes this northeastern city could not only open doors for Puerto Rican professionals from all types of industries, but could represent business opportunities for both economies.
“It can’t be one-sided, we don’t want to send that message. We know that people are leaving the island. We know the challenges they’re facing — my mother lives there, I’m heartbroken,” he said. “But as a city we have to say, you know what, let’s help these folks find opportunities.”
With that in mind, Alvarado is spearheading the Chamber’s efforts to align itself with key private-sector figures in Puerto Rico to brainstorm on what needs to be done to move the initiative along.
In the pipeline is hosting a job fair in Puerto Rico in the fall, as well as meeting with businesses on the island looking to find ways to help them expand their reach stateside.
“We can bring a lot of value to Puerto Rico,” said Alvarado, who chairs the Hola Pittsburgh! initiative. “And when I say that, I think about energy, for example, which is an area where Pittsburgh is big and through which we can collaborate with Puerto Rico.”
“This is not just about offering Puerto Ricans job opportunities, or a place where they can come and live and have their family, but it’s also about opening up business opportunities in both areas,” said Alvarado, adding that Pittsburgh will need Puerto Rican-run operations to support the expected swell in new residents coming from the island.
Alvarado is teaming up with well-known Puerto Rican executives Ignacio Veloz — former United Retailers Association president — and CPA Luis Torres-Llompart, who headed the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, among other organizations “to bring talent to the table,” he said.
“We’re going to start working on that…just as soon as we’re done with this weekend’s events,” Alvarado said.