Last June, more than 80 members of the Society of American Travel Writers visited Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to see the city’s unbelievable transformation first-hand.
Editor's note: Per the comment below, this article has been updated and reflects those changes. Thank you.
WHAT’S ON YOUR BUCKET LIST? AFRICAN SAFARI? SKYDIVE? Climb Mount Everest? Take part in a religious retreat in Nepal? How about visit Pittsburgh to see how the city has transformed itself from a smoke-spewing rust-belt city to a model of eco-friendly living, sustainability and civic pride?
Sadly, it’s unlikely that Pittsburgh is on many bucket lists. But it should be. In fact, National Geographic named Pittsburgh one of the “2012’s 20 Best Places in the World.” And what were some of the other hot spots that made the list? Try New Zealand, Greece, Oman, London, Costa Brava and Iceland. How’s that for good company?
Last June, more than 80 members of the Atlantic-Caribbean and Northeast chapters of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) visited Pittsburgh to see the city’s unbelievable transformation first-hand.
When the destination was announced to the SATW membership, a few were skeptical because most (probably those over 40) remember Pittsburgh the way it used to be. Some vocalized concerns by asking whom in Pittsburgh would be around to talk about the arts, books, movies or food. But when the group arrived, any preconceived ideas of what Pittsburgh was proved inaccurate.
Ed Wetschler of the Northeast Chapter of the SATW has traveled to Pittsburgh for years and has seen how the city has reinvented itself over the past three decades.
“I have seen this city change from a filthy uncultured burgh to a remarkable place with great museums, green buildings, wonderful parks and sophisticated restaurants,” Wetschler said. “This is truly a remarkable story of a changed city.”
Steel mills once defined Pittsburgh. Every day the sun would “set” in the mid-afternoon, regardless of the season, because the smoke-filled air would block it out. Streetlights burned all day so pedestrians and cars could navigate the city. The three rivers that surround Pittsburgh were cesspools of waste from factories. And the city was populated by “yinzers,” a formerly derogatory term to describe a part of the local populous who spoke a unique dialect of English. The term was also used to describe Pittsburgh’s uneducated working class community. Back then you were either a yinzer or a wanna-be yinzer.
In the mid-1980s, foreign investors bought out the last of the major steel manufacturers and the bottom promptly fell out of the local economy. Next came the elimination of both blue- and white-collar jobs. In 1985, the economy was so bad more than 1,000 senior corporate jobs and Ph.D. research positions at the various universities in the area were lost in one day.
Other cities might have crumbled and accepted their destiny as a footnote in history, but Pittsburgh’s leaders, citizens, corporations and universities pulled together to remake their city. Civic leaders knew that in order to survive, Pittsburgh could no longer rely on a single industry to provide jobs. There was a conscious effort to attract a wide range of industries to invest in the area.
Today, Pittsburgh’s job market is diversified with high-paying jobs in medicine, banking, finance, tourism, technology and academia. Instead of steel mills providing the most jobs, the city’s largest employers are now the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the West Penn Allegheny Health System.
After Pittsburgh’s economic implosion, city leaders looked inward to sort out what infrastructure was already in place and made a list of what needed to be built. Civic leaders came to several major conclusions after years of analysis and debate. First, the city had a world-class medical center at the University of Pittsburgh and it was a major draw for young, upwardly mobile professionals who wanted to study at a well-known and highly respected medical facility. Second, the city had other universities in the area (such as Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and Chatham), which could also help revitalize the city by attracting students. Third, in order to keep the students in Pittsburgh after graduation, good paying jobs would need to be created. And fourth, the city has some of the world’s best museums, and if marketed correctly, could help drive tourism. Add two new sports stadiums and a few new hotels and the city might have a winning formula.
Accomplishing this transformation wasn’t easy. Everything in the city had to change—the way residents thought of themselves, public transportation systems, energy use and the business community would all have to buy in. But the alternative was to fold and let the city die. Nobody wanted that.
By 2009, it became abundantly clear that Pittsburgh’s transformation was a success because U.S. President Barack Obama selected the city as the site for a G-20 dinner. The reason he chose Pittsburgh is because of the city’s innovative outlook on sustainability and the city’s reinvention and transition from an industrial-based economy to a green economy.
The dinner was held at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, because one of its new buildings was different from nearly every other building in the world. The building is different because it exceeds LEED Platinum design standards. After completion, designers were able to determine that the new Phipps facility uses at least 50 percent less energy than traditional buildings and has reduced capacity requirements for heating, ventilation and cooling systems by 30 percent to 40 percent. President Obama used the occasion to show other world leaders what can be done to become more energy efficient.
SATW's Meeting Chair Kristi Casey Sanders, VP creative and chief storyteller for Plan Your Meetings, says that not only is the Phipps Conservatory green, but much of the Pittsburgh Convention Center is too. The food served on site at the convention center is seasonal, local and organic, and much of the food that is served to guests is actually grown on site. Sanders says many of the convention center’s union workers, those burly types who move heavy equipment around at trade shows, no longer take smoke breaks. Instead, they head up to the roof of the convention hall to check on their tomatoes. Yes, even the union guys have turned green.
SATW members stayed downtown at the Sheraton Station Square and had their opening reception at The Fairmont Pittsburgh—the hotel’s restaurants feature seasonal dishes where the produce and meats are supplied by local stores, growers and ranchers.
Sanders used this hotel’s unique aspect to help each of the travel writers come up with story angles. Sanders invited the farmers who supply the food used by the Fairmont to the SATW opening night dinner. The growers were able to talk directly to the writers about what they’re doing to support local restaurants, how the food was grown and how their family business is prospering with Pittsburgh’s commitment to food sustainability. Each grower had a creative way of telling a story—some had video presentations, while others told stories of what inspired them. Sanders called it a unique opportunity for the writers.
“I want to give my attendees as many opportunities to be exposed to things as possible so they have an opportunity to sell their work,” Sanders said.
The Fairmont Pittsburgh, which opened in 2010, also provided another window into Pittsburgh’s history. As the construction crew excavated the site, they came across some artifacts that told another part of Pittsburgh’s past. Glass, not steel, was the city’s first major industry, and as the work crews dug into the soil they found dozens of apothecary bottles and doll heads. The artifacts were preserved and are showcased in an area near the hotel’s main restaurant and just outside the hotel’s meeting space.
It’s quite possible that Pittsburgh is the most ideal city in America for a meeting. If your goal is to gather executives to talk about how to reinvent a company, Pittsburgh provides a fantastic Cinderella backdrop that can easily be woven into the meeting theme.
If you’re looking for a destination that is forward thinking and innovative, there are great and compelling stories in the city’s eco-friendly buildings. Environmentalists, architects and commercial real estate developers can benefit by studying how Pittsburgh turned itself green.
Some meeting planners like to include outdoor activities as part of the meeting agenda. There are diverse walking, hiking and biking trails around Pittsburgh that you can incorporate into a conference.
If art is your thing, or you want a spectacular venue for a special event, some of the world’s most famous museums are located here. The Carnegie Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Science Center and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh are all within walking distance of the downtown area.
And, not to be left out, if you’re a foodie, there are walking tours and restaurants throughout the city where you can get just about anything your stomach desires.
So, do you still think that Pittsburgh is nothing but a smoke-filled city that is populated by yinzers and stuck in the 1960s? Put it on your bucket list and find out. One+
One+ May 2012,
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