Can the Steel City Dethrone Silicon Valley?

A new Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership between developers and industry leaders will form the "Silicon Strip," which many hope rivals California's tech hub.

by Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / October 21, 2015

(TNS) -- While California long has had Silicon Valley, some believe it is high time Pittsburgh has its own term to identify its growing tech community.

Silicon Strip, anyone?

That’s the name the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and a group of developers have informally tossed about to highlight a section of the city stretching from Downtown through the Strip District and Oakland into East Liberty and Larimer.

The name had its genesis in recent trips taken to San Francisco by Jeremy Waldrup, PDP president and CEO, and Aaron Stauber, president of Rugby Realty, which owns numerous properties Downtown.

During their visits, both were struck by the “buzz” about Pittsburgh and how much people seemed to know about the city and its growing tech reputation.

When they returned, they related their experiences in an email exchange that also involved officials with Oxford Development Co.; Dan McCaffery, CEO of Chicago-based McCaffery Interests; and several others.

There was consensus that there was a need to capitalize on — and package — the city’s increasing influence in the tech world, Mr. Waldrup said.

Out of that came the term “Silicon Strip.”

“Every one of us expressed a lot of frustration that every story about Pittsburgh starts with the Rust Belt. What a great way to replace it,” Mr. Stauber said. “Let’s sweep away the rust and instead have silicon.”

They won’t be the first to try to grab the tech mantle from Silicon Valley. North Carolina has its Research Triangle. Boston has its Route 128, and Austin, Texas, has its Silicon Hills.

Mr. Waldrup said neither the partnership nor any of the developers are planning expensive campaigns to try to market the name. The idea, he said, “is to start calling it that and see if it sticks.”

“Hopefully, this will be part of the nomenclature in talking about the city’s economy, where we’re headed,” he said.

Mr. McCaffery, whose firm helped to develop the Cork Factory in the Strip and is now involved in redeveloping the produce terminal, said calling the corridor between Downtown and the East End the Silicon Strip is “pretty neat.”

“There is this seed, it’s already germinating in the Pittsburgh area, particularly along and around the Strip District,” he said of the growing number of high-tech firms in the region. “So why not christen it? Why not give it a name and identify it and have other people hear about it?”

Megan Stearman, spokeswoman for Oxford Development, said the idea of branding the corridor the Silicon Strip “has some merit” but added that “before we go renaming anything we would like to talk it through with the community.”

“We think they should have a say in the matter,” she said.

Likewise, Kevin Acklin, chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto, described the branding campaign as an “interesting concept” but stopped short of endorsing it.

“We just were really presented with the idea. We would like the ability to chat with council members and other stakeholders about a branding campaign of that depth,” he said.

That said, the mayor shares the group’s enthusiasm for such a campaign to highlight the city as an emerging tech hub. “We’re open to further discussions, absolutely,” Mr. Acklin said.

The Downtown to East End corridor certainly has no shortage of tech companies. Apple is preparing to move to the Strip from Carnegie Mellon University. Uber has taken up residence in the neighborhood as well and Google is expanding into a second office building at Bakery Square in Larimer/?Shadyside.

In addition, the corridor is home to the Pittsburgh Technology Center and Carnegie Mellon University, a hotbed for student-inspired tech startups and fertile recruiting ground for tech companies. Mr. Acklin said the North Shore and Allegheny Center, with its new tech hub, should be included as well.

One who has experienced the buzz about Pittsburgh firsthand is Mark Stauber, Aaron Stauber’s son and a fourth-year doctoral student in robotics at Stanford University. When choosing a school, he selected Stanford over CMU because of the opportunities available in Silicon Valley.

But now a lot of his friends are talking about the Steel City — or the Silicon Strip, as his dad would call it — particularly with Apple and Google here and the creation of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip.

When he started at Stanford, Mark Stauber never really heard Pittsburgh discussed much. That has changed radically, with so many tech companies now in Pittsburgh and housing prices so much lower than they are in the Bay Area.

“Now Pittsburgh is on the map,” he said.

©2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.