Project seeks to lure hostel crowd to Pittsburgh's South Side

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Anne Marie Toccket was talking to friends in Germany over the Internet last week when she mentioned that she was trying to open a hostel in Pittsburgh.

They asked what she was waiting for. Just do it, they said.

She told them that a simple proposition in Europe, where hostels are plentiful, is not quite so easy to pull off in Pittsburgh.

Still, Ms. Toccket -- along with the handful of people who make up the Pittsburgh Hostel Project -- is working to do just that. The goal: open a $1.1 million hostel with 60 to 70 beds on the city's South Side by early 2014.

The project, still in the early planning stages, recently received some big boosts from local groups.

American Eagle Outfitters, which has its headquarters on the South Side, pledged $15,000 to the project and the Sprout Fund has awarded a $1,000 grant that will be used to hold community meetings about the hostel initiative, Ms. Toccket said.

The hostel project, Ms. Toccket wrote in an email, is "full steam ahead."

Hostels, for most people, first bring to mind Europe rather than the United States, said Netanya Stutz, spokeswoman for Hostelling International-USA. The Silver Spring, Md.-based organization has a network of 60 hostels in the United States.

The concept of hostels -- a form of lodging that is often shared and usually less expensive than a hotel -- began in Germany in the early 1900s, but has expanded throughout the world, according to a history of hostels compiled on the group's website.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks caused a decline in traveling and hurt the hostel business, but now the industry is expanding once again, Ms. Stutz said.

"It's definitely growing for us," she said in a phone interview. In 2012, her organization had a record year, with overnight visits surpassing the 1 million mark for the first time.

Hostels in the United States tend to be clean and safe and have features such as free wireless Internet and breakfast, she said. That, said Ms. Toccket, 28, of Bloomfield, is not the popular perception.

She has traveled through more than 40 countries, using hostels almost exclusively. So she knows that people often have negative perceptions of them, thinking that because rooms are less expensive than at a regular hotel, they are dirtier or uglier.

"Hostels get a bad rap," she said in a phone interview. "And it's really not fair."

Ms. Toccket is hoping that the South Side's future hostel will correct that impression.

"Our goal really is to change that perception and to bring what I think, in fact, will be one of the most innovative, in terms of concept and design, [hostels] that exists in the United States so far," she said.

It won't be Pittsburgh's first, or only, hostel. A hostel located in Allentown closed in 2005, and Jon Potter, 22, of Lawrenceville has been running a donation-only hostel since June, with "a couple hundred" people from every continent but Antarctica coming through his home as guests.

Ms. Toccket thinks the people who use the South Side hostel will range from young travelers to families on a budget to visiting professors to traveling performers.

"I think there's absolutely room in the Pittsburgh market for this kind of thing," she said.

The South Side hostel, which will pursue nonprofit status, will likely have rates starting at $25 a night, and programming that could include something like a pierogi-making class for newcomers to Pittsburgh, Ms. Toccket said.

She was named director of the Pittsburgh Hostel Project last summer, when the group secured 10,000 square feet of space on two floors of a building at 14th and East Carson streets on the South Side, which also houses the Beehive Coffeehouse.

The South Side, with its access to public transit and its location near restaurants, bars and other attractions, is an ideal spot for a hostel, she said.

"There's almost no effort you would have to put into figuring out where to go," she said.

Tom Tripoli, the building's owner, has offered to provide $600,000 of the costs to convert the building into a hostel, and Ms. Toccket is working to raise the remaining $500,000 through a combination of grants, donations from businesses and foundations, fundraising events and individual donations through their website, www.pittsburghhostel.org.

"The hope is that we can raise this money in Pittsburgh," she said.

An architect has begun taking measurements and preliminary drawings should begin soon, she said. She originally believed the hostel would be ready for business by the end of the year, but now expects it will open in early 2014.

Her friends in Europe tell her that when the hostel opens, they will come visit.

travel - neigh_city - businessnews

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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