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Ready to smile for the cameras, Pittsburgh?

| Sunday, March 26, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

High-profile events in coming months will thrust Pittsburgh into the national spotlight, but local officials remain unsure what they want America to see.

With four months until Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, Mayor Bob O'Connor says he's ready to promote the city to a regional and national audience.

He sees the baseball game in July as the first in a series of events that will draw national attention to the city. The list includes the National Football League's kickoff weekend in September, the United States Golf Association's U.S. Open next year and Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary in 2008.

"There's no agenda but Pittsburgh," O'Connor said. "I'm a very good salesperson and representative for this city."

But O'Connor has yet to bring together all the agencies that promote, brand and sell the city -- such as the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

O'Connor has said he wants to "redd up" the city, but hasn't finalized a comprehensive strategy for cleaning streets and towing abandoned cars. It remains in the planning stages, spokesman Dick Skrinjar said.

"There's been no grand summit meeting," Skrinjar said. "But we're working in that direction. We want to make sure a cleaner and safer city is a reality by the time guests get here" for the baseball game.

The convention bureau -- armed with $500,000 to sell Pittsburgh this year with print, TV and radio ads -- had a strained relationship with former Mayor Tom Murphy, said CEO Joseph McGrath.

The All-Star game will be a "big test" to see how O'Connor handles the opportunity, he said.

"Each mayor has certain priorities that they believe are the cornerstones of their tenure, and the tourism and hospitality industries were not part of the cornerstone of the previous administration," McGrath said.

Murphy could not be reached for comment.

Last year's All-Star Game in Detroit lured 54,000 visitors. They pumped $42 million into the local economy, said Carolyn Artman, spokeswoman for the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

More than three-quarters of the visitors said they had a more favorable image of Detroit after seeing it in person and were likely to come back within two years.

"Our image was positively affected by the game," Artman said.

Milwaukee still basks in the afterglow of hosting the All-Star Game four years ago, said Doug Neilson, president of the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Major League Baseball took the lead in promoting the event, and that allowed local officials to focus on highlighting the city's assets -- including a new convention center and baseball stadium, he said.

"It was a great opportunity for exposure to Milwaukee," Neilson said. "Not only locally, but obviously all the national coverage that came with it."

Beyond the game, McGrath believes O'Connor will shine as spokesman for Pittsburgh because of his winning smile and warm personality. Looking to a future after the game, he wants the mayor to speak at more trade shows and conventions, and to travel to bid for conventions.

"Greeting people and kissing babies -- the mayor is that type of person," McGrath said.

O'Connor's chief of staff, B.J. Leber, has chaired the convention bureau's board of directors since before joining the mayor's administration. But unlike Chicago or New York City, the Pittsburgh mayor's office doesn't have an advertising budget.

That job falls to groups such as the visitors bureau and the Allegheny Conference. Tourism brought in $3.6 billion to Allegheny County last year, with $1.4 billion of that spent in Pittsburgh. It is the county's third-largest money earner behind the education and medical industries, according to Pittsburgh research firm Tripp Umbach and Associates.

Those groups have been planning for the city's 250th birthday, calling the event "Pittsburgh 250." The chairman of the committee is James E. Rohr, PNC Bank chairman and CEO. O'Connor and county Chief Executive Dan Onorato are co-chairs.

Officials said they're looking to Atlanta as a model. That city raised $9.9 million in private and public donations for a promotional campaign called "Brand Atlanta." It features the city's museums, new aquarium and sports teams with print and television ads, as well as a video segment on Delta airline flights.

"Brand Atlanta is a manifestation of the mayor getting everyone together to tell Atlanta's story, regionally and nationally," said Ken Haldin, the campaign's communications director.

Pittsburgh even has been a recent target of another city's promotional efforts.

Annapolis, Md., spent $80,000 in the Pittsburgh region on billboards and print ads for its "Come Sail Away" campaign -- in part because Allegheny County has so many boaters. The county has 28,401 registered boat owners, highest in the state.

Connie DelSignore, chief executive of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Conference and Visitors Bureau, said it couldn't hurt if Pittsburgh made similar outreach efforts.

"A rebirth is needed, to bridge the gap between perception and reality," said DelSignore, a Johnstown native who said she spends considerable leisure time in Pittsburgh. "People who have never been to Pittsburgh don't know what a fabulous city it is."

On a recent business trip to Pittsburgh from Johnstown, Joe Paros said he enjoys visiting -- whether for business or to see a Steelers or Penguins game -- because the city is clean and has extensive nightlife options.

"There's a good atmosphere," said Paros, 37. "The days of this being a depressed and dirty town are over."

Additional Information:

Promoting cities

Cities that recently launched campaigns to lure visitors:

  • Atlanta's 'Brand Atlanta,' with the tagline 'Every Day is an Opening Day,' began last fall. Civic and business leaders raised $9 million in less than a year.

  • Annapolis and Anne Arundel County in Maryland launched the 'Come Sail Away' campaign in February 2005 and targeted Pittsburgh with an $80,000 advertising campaign that featured billboards and print ads to lure boat enthusiasts.

  • The Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau rolled out its 'Historical Richmond Region, Easy to Love' campaign in 2002. Nine regional groups helped devise the campaign, says visitors bureau CEO Jack Berry. The Richmond, Va., region has enjoyed nearly a 10 percent yearly growth in visitors since 2003.

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