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Market Penetration

We stick it to adult businesses at our peril

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Now that Pittsburgh is on the brink of financial collapse, it's become fashionable to bemoan the obscene political pandering that led us to this sorry fate. The real problem, though, may be that our leaders haven't been pandering obscenely enough.

 

For the past year, for example, City Councilors Gene Ricciardi and Barbara Burns have been weighing changes to the city's zoning code, changes that would prohibit strip clubs and adult bookstores from locating anywhere other than Downtown. There hasn't been a profusion of X-rated businesses: Council is just taking a, well, prophylactic approach to the matter.

 

Momentum for the changes died in late October, when city planners noted that zoning laws already protect many city neighborhoods. The zoning code prohibits adult stores from being too close to buildings like churches, schools and even to each other. Once you start factoring in all these limits, you find that sex shops are already prohibited from locating in most residential and business areas. The handful of sites a strip club could use often suffer from what newspaper accounts have called "limited visibility" -- which is obviously a problem in the voyeurism biz.

 

The city's lack of vision, however, is a problem everywhere. Arguably, we shouldn't be looking to curtail the porn business; if anything, maybe we should be trying to encourage it in our efforts to revitalize Pittsburgh's economy.

 

Some New Economy boosters might contend that the sex trade is distinctly an Old Economy industry. The oldest, you might say.

 

To those, I can only recommend the 60 Minutes Nov. 23 report on the pornography industry.

 

On that broadcast, reporter Steve Kroft reported the adult-movie industry is booming. Leading adult-movie producers are experiencing double-digit growth -- in profits, that is -- by renting out some 800 million videos a year. That's nearly three videos for every man, woman and child in the United States -- or, more precisely, five videos for every man, one for every woman, and a few hundred for the average college student.

 

But rentals are the least of it: Kroft interviewed industry experts who contended -- not implausibly -- that adult movies helped create the market for VCRs. The industry can also claim to have driven the success of the Internet: As Kroft reported, X-rated Web sites have been among the Internet's few reliably profitable ventures, and they have driven the creation of technologies like streaming video. In both cases, pornography opened a door that more reputable media companies have walked through, and in fact many reputable companies (even General Motors) have invested in the industry. Not to mention the industry's spending in advanced medicine, thanks to all those silicone implants.

 

Consumer electronics, information technology, biotech...in every cutting-edge industry that Pittsburgh longs to be a part of, pornography has played a central -- one might even say "seminal" -- role.

 

Sadly, so far many of our efforts in these fields have suffered from a lack of coordination. Our universities pioneer the development of exciting new technologies, for example, but the city has been unable to capitalize on them.

 

Yet we were once leaders in all these fields, and could be again. Imagine the synergy that could be created once you we get UPMC, Carnegie Mellon University and the fragments of Westinghouse working together to make Pittsburgh a center for adult-film production and distribution.

 

Naturally, Pittsburgh's long-struggling film industry could get in on the action as well. As in other cities, Pittsburgh has lost a lot of movie business to Canada. But if we could offer the right mix of financial incentives, Pittsburgh would be well positioned to become, if not Hollywood-on-the-Mon, then at least Gomorrah-on-the-Ohio. Wexford's own musical sensation Christina Aguilera is practically making sex films already, so it's not like we'd be starting from scratch.

 

There'd be substantial tourism opportunities as well. Sin is in: Just look at the current TV campaign marketing Las Vegas. For the past decade, America's gambling Mecca has sought to re-create itself as a family-friendly destination...but that's over with now. These days, ads touting Vegas extol the joys of quickie marriages and Shriners running out on their drab home lives.

 

Think it can't happen here? Consider that the Sports and Exhibition Authority is now (reluctantly) hoping that slot machines are legalized in Pennsylvania; otherwise it has little hope of funding operations at the new Convention Center. If that doesn't work, it probably won't be long before SEA Executive Director Steve Leeper has to show up in Harrisburg wearing strategically placed tassels.

 

But as is so often the case, Pittsburgh has been slow to recognize its opportunity. Ricciardi and Burns' tinkering with the zoning code is only the most recent example. The city has waged a costly legal campaign to rid the city of its only X-rated movie theater, the North Side's Garden Theater. Other adult establishments in the city's core are ignored at best. The Cultural Trust, which prefers to bring in the kind of adult entertainment that involves wearing tuxedos, has bought up much of the city's once-famous Liberty Avenue red-light district. By purchasing Downtown properties, it's run many of these businesses out of the center city, and made no secret of wanting to remove those that still remain.

 

The irony is that, every time it does so, the city's other vice -- indebtedness -- suffers. The growth of nonprofit arts groups has taken valuable Downtown properties off the tax roles. And for all the Cultural Trust's talk of creating vibrancy, the people who attend Cultural Trust events don't act much like they're interested in a "24-hour Downtown"; if anything, they have the fearful look of people who've been given 24-hours to leave town.

 

The only businesses that are certain to be open 24 hours a day, of course, are the very adult establishments the city's getting rid of. Granted, you wouldn't necessarily want to live next door to them, but hey -- the opera isn't everyone's cup of tea either. And while pornography undoubtedly traffics in human misery and exploits those who work within it, what great Pittsburgh business hasn't done the same at one point or another?

 

And adult video stores at least contribute something to the bottom line, which is more than you can say for a lot of great Pittsburgh businesses.

 

As the mayor himself has lamented, Pittsburgh's financial health is crippled by the fact that so many of its leading employers are either nonprofits (like the Cultural Trust) or corporations that enjoy exemptions to the city's business tax. The mayor has pointed out that corner stores pay more in business taxes than some of the city's biggest companies.

 

In other words, some of Pittsburgh's least reputable businesses contribute more in business tax than its most respectable corporations. But we act like it's the adult bookstores we ought to be ashamed of. 

 

 

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