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Pittsburgh basks in the G20 spotlight Add to ...

When Barack Obama, Stephen Harper and their compatriots from the G20 group of countries arrive in Pittsburgh this week, they will be tacitly endorsing this former "rust-belt" city as a world-class convention centre.

Pittsburgh has transformed itself into a high-tech centre specializing in health care, education and finance, but it is still fighting its outdated image as a decayed industrial city. So locals are euphoric at the chance to show just how much it has changed.

"Holding the G20 summit will show the world that we are a player and that we can handle big events like this," says Craig Davis, vice-president of sales at VisitPittsburgh, the Pennsylvania city's tourism and convention bureau.

Pittsburgh is already a centre for many large conventions. Just last week it hosted the AFL-CIO national convention - where President Obama gave a keynote speech - and soon after the summiteers move out, the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation arrives in town.

For the duration of the G20 summit, all of the city's 4,000 downtown hotel rooms are sold out, along with most of the 16,000 in surrounding Allegheny County. The only ones still available are in the outer suburbs.

It is Pittsburgh's attractive, compact core, filled with restaurants and theatres, that helps draw business from competing facilities in similar-sized cities such as Baltimore and Cleveland, Davis says.

It also attracts conventions because it is now a cultural centre. The new August Wilson Center for African-American Culture opened last week, and the long-established Andy Warhol Museum is now a fixture.

Relatively low costs, compared to major convention cities such as Chicago and New York, also help.

But the key reason for the city's convention success is its David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the first and largest meeting venue in the world to receive LEED certification for its low environmental impact. Opened in 2003, the centre has 250,000 square feet of space flooded with daylight, a contrast from artificially lit convention centres in other cities.

That environmental distinction is a sharp contrast to the city's dirty industrial past, which is still a stumbling block for potential visitors. "People who haven't been here have very low expectations," Davis says.

To fight that image, VisitPittsburgh pays for familiarization tours by potential convention organizers.

One stumbling block in the effort to attract larger conventions is the lack of a hotel within the Lawrence Center. A developer selected to build a 500-room hotel pulled out recently, and city officials won't look for a new builder until economic conditions improve.

Still, with 4,000 rooms downtown, most conventions can find enough room in Pittsburgh to hold their events there, Davis says.

Sports and gambling offer two more drawing cards. Pittsburgh promotes its three professional sports teams, a group that includes the current Stanley Cup-champion Penguins.

And soon the new Rivers Casino, which sits on the bank of the Ohio River, will lure gamblers. "It's a beautiful place. That will be a big draw," says Herbert Soltman, a long-time Pittsburgh businessman who is spending his retirement working for an agency to host international visitors. "Pittsburgh is one of the country's best kept secrets."

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