The G-20 ghost town

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If there had been tumbleweeds, they would have been blowing through the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh. With horse-mounted state troopers, the illusion was nearly complete. Pittsburgh, on the second morning of the G-20 Leadership Summit when President Obama spoke, was a ghost town.

BlvdAllies
NOT A CAR IN SIGHT—The normally busy Boulevard of the Allies was empty of any signs of traffic and people.

City, county, state offices—closed. The United Way, Urban League—closed. Saks Fifth Avenue and Brooks Brothers, stores that might have attracted foreign dignitaries—closed. Most Downtown churches were also closed, some, like the Lutheran church on Grant Street, had their windows boarded up.

Still, there were signs of life from businesses hoping to lure the anticipated activists, onlookers and media. Sbarro’s Pizza did a moderate business, and after the largest organized rally, was filled with hungry protesters. Both the CVS Pharmacy on Smithfield Street and the Rite Aid on Forbes Avenue did a brisk business selling bottled water and batteries—mostly, said one security guard, to photographers documenting the near empty streets.

“It’s picked up a few times,” said one of the servers at the McDonald’s at 535 Smithfield St. “Yesterday was worse. It was totally dead.”

Closer to Liberty Avenue, the Burlington Coat Factory was also open, but a sales assistant smoking a cigarette outside wondered why.

“Yeah, we’re open,” she said. “We’ve had maybe three people so far.”

Up on Grant Street, as Asian tourists took photos of themselves with security personnel, a small group of Ethiopians passed by on their way to Liberty Avenue to protest against their prime minister.

And down on Liberty, when the out-of-town media weren’t photographing each other, they got the Ethiopians, or the lone Honduran girl protesting President Obama’s support for ex-president Zelaya.

Though there were the occasional motorcades as foreign dignitaries left their hotels, and the busloads of swat personnel preparing for the mid-day “People’s March,” for the bulk of the day there were more pigeons than people in the streets.

So, instead of the “friendly city” promoters wanted to show off, out-of-town visitors saw empty streets and massive security, if they saw anything beyond their hotel rooms and the convention center. Still, VisitPittsburgh President Joe McGrath said the G-20 bought $35 million for hotels, transportation and service industries. He also estimated the event was worth $100 million in free advertising worldwide.

He added that two groups are now negotiating to hold meetings here as a result of the G-20 publicity. Dennis Yablonski, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said G-20 news stories have already yielded a call from one international company about doing business here.

The direct losses are harder to calculate. One that can’t be recovered is parking revenue. At $10 a pop, with no one in the city’s 21,000 parking spots for two days, that’s a $420,000 loss. If half of the 140,000 commuters who didn’t come to work for two days usually buy lunch, at say $7 a pop, that’s another $98,000 gone.

Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership President Michael Edwards said he anticipated people parking on the city’s perimeter and walking in, but “they just didn’t come.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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