City will have a ball on New Year's

Midnight countdown will culminate with raising of 1,000-pound sphere

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For the first time, Downtown Pittsburgh's New Year's Eve celebration this year will be marked by the raising of a giant, glowing ball at midnight, a la New York's Times Square.

Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette
The blue ball atop the Highmark building will move upward at midnight.
Click photo for larger image.

Yes, raising: The thousand-pound ball is called "The Future of Pittsburgh," so when the midnight countdown occurs it will be lifted to the top of a 74-foot flagpole, touching off a fireworks show. (Dropping "The Future" is not exactly the self-image city fathers are going for.)

The ceremony at Penn Avenue Place -- the Highmark office building and former Horne's department store -- will cap off Pittsburgh's annual First Night celebration, an alcohol-free Downtown party targeting families that includes music, fireworks, dance, magic, comedy acts and other activities.

More broadly, the event is meant to be a celebration of revitalizing Pittsburgh's image in the nation's eyes and its own.

"Wouldn't it be great to have a venue that's better than Times Square?" asked Dr. Ken Melani, the CEO of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, First Night's main sponsor.

"That's what we intend to do on New Year's Eve -- to make the gateway to Pittsburgh and the gateway to the Cultural District a venue that beats Times Square. We're going to raise 'The Future of Pittsburgh' on New Year's Eve night to symbolize for us there's a new era, a new beginning for the city of Pittsburgh."

There are more "Future" metaphors.

The giant ball was constructed out of recycled materials, officials said, to symbolize Pittsburgh's leadership in environmentally-friendly building initiatives -- the David L. Lawrence Convention Center is the world's largest green building, PNC is building the nation's largest's mixed-use office building on Fifth Avenue, and the Cultural Trust is leading a massive green housing development Downtown.

"Pittsburgh is rising as a green, environmentally-conscious city, it's rising as a cultural center and it's rising as a great place to work and live and have fun," said Ken McCrory, the Cultural Trust's First Night chair. "Those who come to First Night will find that out firsthand."

First Night activities begin at 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 31, with an early fireworks display beginning at 6:15. Visitors ages 6 and older need an $8 button to enter First Night performances, and seating is limited in some locations.

All official First Night events are alcohol-free, but Pittsburgh does not go dry for New Year's -- Downtown bars and restaurants are still open and looking for business.

The "Future of Pittsburgh" ball has already been placed on the top of Highmark's Penn Avenue Place building, at the corner of Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue.

First Night officials hope the ceremony marking the start of the new year will create a festive, large gathering in the open area near the intersection, adjacent to Fifth Avenue Place and Gateway Center, where the Steelers Super Bowl rally was held in February.

The ball -- in blue, the corporate color of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield -- weighs 1,000 pounds and is more than 61/2 feet in diameter. It is festooned with 48 surface strobe lights, 72 internal halogen bulbs and 1,100 light emitting diodes, which require more than 6,000 watts to illuminate.

The ball concept was designed by Burt Hill architects, lit by Hilbish McGee Lighting Design, engineered by Atlantic Engineering Services and constructed by Technique Architectural Products of Wilkinsburg.

Highmark officials began thinking about the midnight celebration four years ago, Dr. Melani said, with thoughts of placing something on the spire atop Fifth Avenue Place. The site was later switched across the street to Penn Avenue Place, partly because revelers in both Downtown and Mount Washington could see it better.

The ball can be divided into two parts and stored on top of the building. Highmark will likely fly an American flag from the pole the rest of the year, Dr. Melani said.

More information is available at www.firstnightpgh.com.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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