Groups eager for role in helping Pittsburgh host G-20 summit

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As the city readies itself for the G-20 summit Sept. 24 and 25, those lusting for a piece of the action during Pittsburgh's two days in the international spotlight would be well-advised to remember this line from the Robert Altman movie about Hollywood, titled, tellingly, "The Player":

Nobody knows anything.

   
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Where will Thursday night's state dinner be held? Will there even be a state dinner? Who will escort Michelle Obama around -- and where will she go, and with whom -- while her husband confers with world leaders behind closed doors? Which museums, tourist attractions or local businesses get a chance to showcase themselves? Where will the best parties be? Will there be any parties, given the economic summit's short duration and the seriousness of its mission?

So many questions, no answers -- yet.

"We've been receiving a lot of phone calls -- scores of them," said Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. "I would characterize them as offers of help, and I think that's a great thing. We've heard from organizations, private businesses, nonprofits offering everything from venues and meeting space to groups that would translate Russian, French or Japanese."

However, Mr. Evanto added, "this is tempered by the fact that the White House is really in charge."

Perhaps, but Mr. Onorato and his aides met with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his aides yesterday for the first of 15 weekly planning meetings to organize a host committee -- "it doesn't even have a name yet," Mr. Evanto said -- and various subcommittees.

Phones have been ringing off the hook, too, at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said Kevin McMahon, the organization's CEO.

"At this point we're trying to assess what information we have right now and how soon we'll get other kinds of information," he said, noting that his group -- and the city -- has plenty of experience working on national events, from the All-Star baseball game to last year's celebration of Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary.

Because the summit will be taking place at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, smack in the middle of the Cultural District, Mr. McMahon's group expects to play a large role, he said. As well they should, he added, given the city's strategic decision several decades ago to use the arts as an economic catalyst to regenerate Downtown -- a model that's been praised nationally.

The Pittsburgh Symphony's opening night is Friday, the last day of the summit. But as luck would have it, Thursday night -- when all the world leaders are here -- the calendar is wide open, noted the symphony's spokesman, Jim Barthem.

Manfred Honeck, the symphony's music director, "would be most honored to conduct a symphony for the leaders of the world," he said.

Tom Sokolowski, director of the Warhol Museum on the North Side, already has crafted a memo listing 25 reasons why there should be a reception for world leaders at the Warhol, he said.

"It's the only museum of its kind in the world, its art will mean something to everyone in those countries -- or at least most of them. Plus, we've held exhibitions in 30 different countries, and it was Warhol who said, 'Business art is the best kind of art, and I'm a business artist.' That's what this G-20 summit is all about."

Then, he added, "It's not that I don't think Oakland shouldn't have something, but I can't believe they're going to schlep 20 world leaders across town when we can be locked down very easily for security reasons."

Despite the security and geographical hurdles, local organizations, big and small, see endless possibilities for self-promotion.

Simin Curtis, president and founder of the Middle East Institute, a Pittsburgh-based group which seeks to promote business, educational and cultural ties between the city and countries in the Middle East, said the group's second annual conference is scheduled just two weeks after the summit. Ms. Curtis said she'd hoped to attract numerous international participants -- the foreign minister of Oman, for example, had expressed interest in attending.

"Now I think he'll really be interested," she said, laughing.

Others are stepping up to the plate, too.

Harold Lewis, Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside, said he would invite President Barack Obama and his wife to visit his church, he told parishioners on Sunday.

Reached yesterday, though, Mr. Lewis declined to elaborate on his plans. "I wouldn't want to comment before issuing an invitation," he said. "But it never hurts to ask."

Would Judy Davenport, wife of broadcasting executive Ron Davenport and whose son, Ron Jr., attended Harvard Law School with Michelle Obama, like to host a party for the First Couple?

"Oh, I'm not going to go there," Ms. Davenport said with a laugh, while insisting she knew of no plans for any social events involving the president and his wife. "But of course we're thrilled and happy for Pittsburgh."

One important aspect to remember, noted Bill Flanagan, executive vice president for corporate relations at the Allegheny Conference -- which is expected to take a lead role in organizing the pre-G-20 hoopla -- is that the summit itself will come and go in a flash.

The world leaders "all flew into London the night before the summit, they had a reception at Buckingham Palace and dinner at 10 Downing Street and spent the whole next day in working sessions. They had a press conference late in the afternoon and left," he said.

That's why the weeks prior to the subject will be where the real action is, he added. "That's the real opportunity to get our message out, because that's when the media and advance teams will begin to arrive," he said.

"The issue is, how much time are these folks really going to have, outside their own meetings?" added the Cultural Trust's Mr. McMahon.

What he's trying to anticipate is what all the people accompanying the dignitaries are going to be doing. "They'll be ... hanging out, if you will, in our neighborhood, walking back and forth, and this is a unique opportunity for us to tell our story."

Then there are the "unbelievable number of reporters who will descend on Pittsburgh a week ahead of time," Mr. Evanto said. "There are just tremendous opportunities there to showcase the region for the international media."

Still, what a circus, with 3,000 reporters? Mr. Evanto, who, as Mr. Onorato's main press liaison, would conceivably be expected to be in the middle of everything, seemed unfazed at the prospect, perhaps because he'd booked a two-week vacation to Europe in late September.

Will he cancel it?

"I'm going to have to think about that one," he laughed.


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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