Tourism outfit promotes key neighborhoods in initiative

With a new initiative — Philadelphia Neighborhoods — debuting today, Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corp.(GPTMC) is raising the stakes when it comes to its impact on the city. And, in doing so it’s also raising a question: will tourism officials do a better job than others in marketing our city’s assets not just to visitors but to residents?

You might as well ask if pizzazz can outperform wonk.

Tourism routinely claims a spot among the world’s largest industries and here in the States it accounts for $1.8 trillion in annual economic impact.

More than $9 billion of that total is coming from our region, according to GPTMC, the nonprofit responsible for promoting leisure travel to the city. While definitions of impact can be flexible and interpretations can be liberally stretched,  obviously in the monies it generates directly, the people it employs, and the money they in turn spend, tourism is a certain economic driver — and GPTMC can (and does) take some credit thanks to its barrage of slogans (“With Love” being the latest), incoming travel journalists, and advertising (including extensively papering the walls and steps of New York’s Penn Station).

But by encouraging visitors to “go one more block” further from the attractions-rich areas of Independence Hall, Rittenhouse Square, South Street, and the Parkway, the organization itself is entering new terrain. The Philadelphia Neighborhoods campaign is aimed at pushing out-of-towners and, yes, residents, to explore the artisans, small businesses, and parks and festivals of 14 neighborhoods that flow directly from the core. These are Graduate Hospital, Fairmount and Spring Garden, Callowhill, Northern Liberties and Fishtown, Bella Vista, Queen Village, Pennsport and East Passyunk, and Cedar Park, Spruce Hill, University City, and Powelton Village.

Aside from being easily walkable or taxi-able from Center City, the neighborhoods offer active retail corridors and strong restaurant bases, according to Ethan Connor-Ross, vice president of research and planning at GPTMC, who used a variety of metrics when making the cut.

In addition to the nationally popular site Walk Score, Connor-Ross turned to CultureBlocks, a nascent effort from the city’s Department of Commerce and Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy  to promote and measure the impact and prevalence of neighborhood arts and culture. (Not incidentally, the two city offices are “partners” in the Neighborhoods effort, too, though funding for the $800,000, two-year project comes via the William Penn Foundation.)

In launching the effort, GPTMC CEO Meryl Levitz acknowledged that it’s restaurants, and to a lesser extent retail, that initially bring outsiders into a neighborhood. “This campaign comes out of the Philly Homegrown,” Levitz said, referring to a recent tourism effort to promote the region’s local farm-to-table scene. “And, as we all know, food frequently opens the door. We started thinking about how we could take that as a jumping-off point.”

Judging from the neighborhood profiles that the organization has written and the 600 or so listings it’s created, food (and beer and coffee) still dominates. But in highlighting everything from Fishtown’s gallery-cum-tattoo parlor Black Vulture to Callowhill’s houseware boutique Mio Culture to Pennsport’s Rizzo ice rink, enough uwishunu (another GPTMC initiative) insiderism has been injected to suggest that the effort might actually get neighborhood newcomers moving beyond the tried and true.

Ditto for the videos, at least the two that were previewed at last week’s press event. In one on Graduate Hospital, a spirited resident led viewers on a tour of her favorite stops. Though her patter occasionally lapsed into cliche (better direction would have helped) her picks were wide-ranging. The video for Fishtown illustrated a second style, offering a mash-up of sights-and-sounds that was heavy on the neighborhood’s bar scene but didn’t cheat by revisiting the same ones over and over.

Watching them, it became clear that while some of the selected neighborhoods offer more than others, none is a stretch. And while other cities — and travel writers — frequently sacrifice the practical to the new (read: still emerging) by leading travelers on wild goose chases to find a stray bookstore here and a coffeeshop there, that’s not the case with Philadelphia Neighborhoods. Chalk it up to an ever-expanding core that makes sense, a walkable center that has over the years successfully filled in not only its gaps but softened its rough edges and pushed them further and further out.

In addition to its written and filmed elements, the campaign will feature web-based itineraries, maps, and photos as well as, of course, a robust social media component (using FourSquare, Instagram, and a new Google app called Field Trip).

For some struggling neighborhood corridors, the effort promises a much-needed boost. “We’re a small organization — just two people — like many CDCs and BIDs,” said Mike Harris, executive director of the South Street Headhouse District, which runs through Queen Village and Bella Vista. “This is an economic development tool that can really help us leverage what we have.”

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