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Yearlong celebration has begun

| Monday, Nov. 19, 2007, 12:00 p.m.

Note to Pittsburghers: Take what you think you know about the Steel City, wad it up into a little black-and-gold ball and throw it away.

That's what the organizers of Pittsburgh's 250th birthday celebration are hoping that people from here -- and around the country -- will do next year. The city plans to mark the anniversary of its naming with a yearlong series of events that don't just commemorate the past but also celebrate the present in hopes of changing the way Pittsburghers, and others, perceive the city.

"I think there's a wonderful opportunity for us, as well as the people who don't live here, to recognize Pittsburgh for what it is," said Jim Rohr, head of the Pittsburgh 250th Anniversary Commission and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Rohr said tourists who visit the city realize it's no longer a smoky steel town but a city with a thriving cultural district, world-class universities and an impressive vista. Pittsburghers, ironically, are most in need of convincing that their hometown has a lot more to offer, he said.

Some of the events began already, under the slogan, "Imagine what you can do here." A middle school program is teaching kids about the innovations that have come out of the Pittsburgh region -- the first Big Mac was made here, as was the first aluminum can pop-top. And a campaign is under way to get 250,000 area residents to commit to getting fit.

Next year, dozens of events will be held in conjunction with the 250th anniversary celebration.

One of the biggest will be the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage, a 185-mile series of hiking and biking trails between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md. The passage is part of a larger series of trails running from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

An inaugural ride on the passage in October will be led by a black-and-gold bicycle manufactured by a Bedford County company. The ride will end at the city's downtown Point State Park, where the 250 Festival of Lights will transform the city's buildings into works of art with lighting, sound and motion.

Point State Park will also figure prominently in the city's celebration. The 36-acre park at the confluence of the city's three rivers is undergoing a $35 million renovation.

The park played a crucial role in the French and Indian War, when British, French and Indian forces battled for control of the land.

"It really shaped what America became and it's not a really well-known chapter in America's history," said Bill Flanagan, Pittsburgh 250's executive director.

Point State Park was also where General John Forbes and George Washington named the land Pittsburgh, for Sir William Pitt, in 1758.

Next summer, the city will host the final stage of a national cycling competition known as the Tour of Pennsylvania. The race, which begins in Philadelphia on June 24 and arrives in Pittsburgh five days later, is being billed as the first Tour de France-style race in the U.S.

Sanctioned by USA Cycling, the race will feature about 20 teams of six riders covering 500 miles in Pennsylvania. The grand prize is $250,000.

The yearlong celebration will also include smaller events in communities in and around the city, helped by grants from the 250th commission.

Also, Pittsburghers past and present are being encouraged to hold reunions or meetings in the city during 2008. Already, the city's tourism group says it knows of 50,000 people who will be taking part in these kinds of events next year.

Even the city's sports teams are getting in on the celebration. Members of the Pittsburgh Penguins are wearing a circular black-and-gold patch that says "Pittsburgh 250" on their jerseys.

Organizers hope the events will be a major draw and even make it hard to find a hotel room in the city.

"I think it's going to be a great problem to have," Rohr said.

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