Is Pittsburgh Old?

Over at Blog-Lebo, there was an extended conversation recently about the proliferation of large-size drug stores in the area. Eckerd and Walgreen's stores seem to be popping up on lots all over the South Hills. My guess is that the same sort of thing is happening elsewhere in the region.

A lot of folks intuit that the supply of new drug stores in Pittsburgh is driven by demand, and particularly the demand for pharmaceuticals in a population generally perceived as being, well, old. It's well-known that the Allegheny County population is far older, on average, than almost every other county population in the United States. "We're old here" is a common explanation for a lot of things -- Pittsburgh's cultural and economic conservatism, to name two. But I think that explanation misses the point in this case, in a couple of ways.

First, though not the main point of this post, the future of prescription drug delivery is the Internet. There's just no way that Eckerd and Walgreen's (and CVS and the remaining Rite Aid stores) are positioning themselves for hordes of the elderly to come walking and rolling into their stores. They may be greedy, but they're not dumb.

Second, more broadly, and more to the point, Pittsburgh isn't as old as it used to be. And it's getting younger all the time.

Take a look at this chart, created by the inimitable Chris Brien at Pitt's UCSUR. It relies on underlying data and a model of the region's population, and I won't bother trying to put all of that out here. You can read the papers at that site. But the bottom line is pretty clear: Pittsburgh's population of the elderly has peaked, and it's going down. Pittsburgh is still old by national metro standards, but the trend is a good one -- if you're thinking about growth, and jobs, and bringing Pittsburgh into the 20th century. (Well, technically, the 21st century, but first things first.)

What does that mean?

First, it means that we should chin up, just a little bit, about what might be coming. The Steelers, Penguins, and even the Pirates are all in the middle of big-time youth movements (in the Pirates' case, unfortunately, the movement is sideways -- on a good day). Pittsburgh is changing, like it or not, even if change is incremental and everyone still slows down before entering the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. Looking at the data, the vector of change favors the young and the new.

Second, and more concretely, it means that Pittsburgh industries that have geared up to serve the elderly -- such as health care, and health care education -- need to look their long-term interests in the eye, and starting thinking about serving a population with ages that are more broadly distributed.

Third, and finally, it means either that Eckerd, Walgreen's, et al., are guilty of gross negligence when it comes to real estate development -- and I doubt that this is the case -- or that they are guilty of wild overbuilding and speculation on account of something else. I favor the latter explanation. My money (not to say my cash) (see the Comments to the Blog-Lebo post) is on land-banking. That would mean that at least someone has confidence in Pittburgh's future. Thoughts?

UPDATE: Chris Briem has an "old" op-ed from the P-G that makes his case more eloquently than I can. The piece is still online at http://www.post-gazette.com/forum/20000102edbriem8.asp.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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