Two months into his six-month car trip through the U.S., Mike Astle discovered Hostelling International Pittsburgh in a guidebook. "It's by far the best one I've ever been to," said Astle, a twentysomething supermarket produce manager from Manchester, England. He slipped a frozen dinner into the oven in the Allentown hostel's bright, spacious kitchen. "I was quite surprised when they said they were shutting it down."
Astle, in fact, was among the final handful of guests at the hostel, which checked out its last visitors Sept. 29, six years and three months after first opening its doors. Thousands of travelers had availed themselves of the clean, cozy facility's 50 beds and prices as low as $19 a night for members of Hostelling International. But it wasn't enough: In August, after failing to secure supplementary funding from local grantmakers, the Pittsburgh Council of Hostelling International decided to shutter the former bank building and dismiss the hostel's four employees.
"[T]he staff is thoroughly frustrated, disappointed, disgusted and heartbroken," reads a posted flyer announcing the closing. The shutdown was particularly poignant in light of a very busy June that was the hostel's third-best month ever, and in fact earned it an extra couple of weeks of life.
But current events won out: The hostel's busiest month ever, says manager Devon Thompson, was August 2001, but the havoc wreaked on the travel industry by the terrorist attacks the following month, combined with the poor economy, struck hostelling too. At the Pittsburgh facility, Sept. 11 helped end a string of four straight years averaging 13 percent growth in overnight stays. It also convinced the Pittsburgh Council last year to close down its other hostel, located in Ohiopyle.
Thompson, a soft-spoken but outspoken sort, also blamed the "wildly enthusiastic" business projections on which the hostel had been founded, and which it could never fulfill. Guests included not only traditional travelers from overseas, but professionals on tightly budgeted business trips and students needing a bed while they searched for permanent housing. But despite its early growth, the facility never had a year in which it operated at more than 24 percent of full capacity.
Sitting in the hostel's cozy TV room, with its hopeful cache of tourism guidebooks, maps, museum brochures and Port Authority bus schedules, you can crane your neck for a striking South Side Slopes view of the Mon Valley, including the Cathedral of Learning. But Thompson -- the hostel's only full-time employee, and one of two staffers who lived at the Warrington Avenue facility -- says the four-story building's size also helped do it in, with heating and cooling costs contributing to a burdensome overhead. Its slightly out-of-the-way location didn't help, either. "Pittsburgh could sustain a hostel if it's done properly," says Thompson.
The building is owned by a partnership of the Pittsburgh Council of Hostelling International, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh and the nonprofit South Pittsburgh Economic Revitalization Team. SPERT Executive Director Charles Peterson says his group is seeking a tenant or buyer. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Council board member Eric Milliron says this shouldn't be construed as the permanent end of hostelling here. "Hostelling International hasn't given up on Pittsburgh," says Milliron. "We're just gonna have to regroup and rethink our strategy."
In the shorter term, Osvaldo Couto might say the same of himself. Couto, a Brazilian physician newly arrived to study liver transplantation at Children's Hospital, had planned to stay at the hostel for six days, until his Shadyside apartment was ready. But upon arrival, he learned he could stay only three, and would have to find other accommodations. On the hostel's last night he sat in the lobby, looking disappointed. "It was a very nice place," he said.