Top 50: Can birthday party put region on national stage?


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Apparently inflation affects the price of a birthday celebration, too.

Seven years ago in Detroit, $27 million paid for one heckuva shindig. The city celebrated its tricentennial with nautical parades, concerts, historical reenactments and a gala ball. The price tag was well worth it, "Detroit 300" planners and city officials said, because of the turnout: 5.7 million visitors, injecting an alleged $158 million into the local economy.





But $27 million doesn't go as far as it used to. Ben Roethlisberger just signed a contract worth four times that. You can barely make a Hollywood flick for less than $30 million. Wanna be president of the United States? That'll set you back $300 million or so.

And civic birthday parties?

Pish.

Pittsburgh's price tag for the 14-county celebration figures to be $50 million over two years, almost twice as expensive as the official figure for the Motor City bash, which was one of the parties Pittsburgh used to benchmark its own celebration (the other: Albuquerque, N.M.).

So what does Pittsburgh -- not to mention all the companies and foundations that ponied up the cash -- hope to gain from the expense? From the concerts, the bike race, the projects large and small that are being organized through, or funded by, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development? How will we measure success -- or failure?

There are the standard metrics, such as hotel occupancy rates, that groups such as VisitPittsburgh will be tracking (and the occupancy numbers seem to be trending above 2007 levels). In 2009, the Allegheny Conference plans to do some polling to track local and national attitudes about the city, to see if perceptions have changed since the last round of polls in 2006.

"It's kind of hard to quantify," said Bill Flanagan, executive director of Pittsburgh 250. But "if we move the needle internally and externally," that's a good sign that the celebration and the PR that is accompanying it have accomplished something.

There's more ephemeral stuff, too. Celebrations such as these can give a city a sense of directed purpose. Remember Pittsburgh's three-day baseball All-Star Game close-up in 2006? Late Mayor Bob O'Connor urged us to "redd up" the city for our tens of thousands of out-of-town visitors.

"It provides the community a goal to work towards. I think that that's a good thing," said Mike Edwards, head of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. The common goal -- Pittsburgh 250 -- can become a mantra that bleeds out of the city and into a national awareness.

Or something along those lines.

"We're all talking about the same thing for a year; that could be very powerful," Mr. Edwards said.

Quebec is banking on the same effect as it celebrates its 400th birthday throughout 2008. The city hopes to increase its annual tourism visits by 5 percent, or 250,000 people.

"Some people know about us, some people don't," said Richard Seguin, of Quebec's tourism department. "We're trying to make as much noise as possible," so that Americans will think beyond Niagara Falls and Toronto when it comes to Canadian destinations.

"We're expecting that the city is going to get some visibility in the United States."

And out of the preparation and noise-making can come tangible, lasting benefits for a community. Call it the World's Fair approach to development: building pavilions and parks to accommodate new visitors.

"You might have noticed the whole city is under construction right now?" birthday party spokeswoman Roxanne St. Pierre said to a Chicago Tribune reporter who was visiting Quebec. "It's because of us."

A theater touch-up here, a river park there, a beach improvement, and pretty soon Quebec had spent $40 million on physical upgrades alone,

It's the same in Pittsburgh. The costly Point State Park renovations and the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail may not have been completed, or at least not with any coordinated haste, without the impetus of Pittsburgh 250.

And there are lots of spin-off events, loosely tied to the celebration, from which the city benefits: the new dinosaur exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Mellon's Robot 250 effort and more.

Add all that stuff up, and the celebration will have a price tag of closer to $70 million.

Worth it?

In hindsight, Detroit believes the infrastructure improvements and the "buzz" that came out of the anniversary celebration gave the city a real momentum push. New parks and monuments were completed that otherwise might not have been. Casinos opened. And in 2006, the city played host to the Super Bowl, as some Pittsburghers may recall.

"Could you do a straight line cause-and-effect between 'Detroit 300' and Detroit getting the Super Bowl? No," said Maud Lyon, former executive director of Detroit 300, now active in the city's arts scene.

But a lot of the city's energy and talent moved from one event to the next. "Some of those people turned and began working on the Super Bowl. ... [Detroit 300] served as an enormous training ground for what has come since."


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Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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