Five years ago, after a sharp decline in overnight stays and plagued by a poorly chosen location, the hostel in Pittsburgh's Allentown neighborhood permanently shut its doors. It was one of only two hostels in Pennsylvania west of Harrisburg. The other, in Ohiopyle, also closed.
Some Pittsburghers, like veteran hosteller Brian Funk, think it's about time to bring the hostel experience back to the city.
"[Pittsburgh's] screaming for a hostel because we have a hugely active music, arts and live-performance scene, and people are coming and going all the time," says Funk, 39, who managed the Allentown hostel for 10 months before it closed in 2003 and has traveled the world, staying in hostels along the way.
Funk and few other fellow hostel-supporters recently formed what they have dubbed the Pittsburgh Hostel Project -- a think-tank of sorts planning to gather enough funds and
interest to open a new hostel here in a more accessible location.
After several brainstorming sessions about how to proceed, the group held its first fundraiser on Wed., July 16, at the Birmingham Bridge Tavern.
Manning a small table near the front of the bar, the group offered a sign-up sheet for anyone interested in e-mail updates, as well as T-shirts adorned with the Pittsburgh Hostel Project logo, on sale for a $20 donation.
"This is a fundraiser but it's also a way to generate excitement and enthusiasm, to show people that there is support for this idea," says Katherine Camp, 26, a group member and planning coordinator for East Liberty Development.
A few months ago, Camp and fellow PHP member Sara Papperman created a Facebook group for the project -- "Pittsburgh needs a hostel"; it currently has more than 473 supporters. Funk also says several businesses have lined up to support the project, including the East End Food Co-op, the Double Wide Grill, and Green Gears/Pedi-Cab.
"If we want to go and ask other money sources for funding, then we want to be able to show that there's city-wide support for this," says Camp.
The group plans to host a fundraiser every month until the end of the year, each at a different location in the city. The next fundraiser will be Aug. 29, from 6 p.m. to midnight, at 622 Second Ave. Tickets will be sold on a sliding scale from $5 to $50 at the door. More information can be found at pittsburghhostel.org.
Kyra Straussman, director of real estate for the Urban Redevelopment Agency, embraces the possibility of a hostel returning to Pittsburgh.
"I'm a big advocate for hostelling and I'm excited to see they're pursuing it," says Straussman, who was a board member for the Allentown hostel while working for South Side Local Development Corp. "I never thought we didn't need a hostel in Pittsburgh."
In May, some members of the group approached Straussman and asked her to share her experience with hostels. The URA, she told them, will not be directly involved. But she offered advice on how to avoid the type of missteps that doomed the old hostel.
"[Allentown] was probably not the location that would've been ideal for travelers coming through Pittsburgh," says Straussman. "And as much as it's a great community, [the hostel] needs to be more centrally located, and that's pretty much what I had to share with the team."
The Allentown hostel failed partially because visitors could not easily navigate the city from atop the hillside neighborhood, says Funk.
"You have to be able to get the people to the hostel and away from the hostel when they're ready to leave," says Funk. "So, Downtown and in the Strip you have access to the multitude of Port Authority bus routes, and the light-rail system, and Amtrak and Greyhound. You are in the transportation hub if you're Downtown."
The greater Pittsburgh region hosts roughly 10.2 million overnight visitors every year, according to the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau. That traffic, the group says, coupled with Pittsburgh's cultural awakening, make the city a logical place for a hostel.
"If we can give [visitors] a place to stay that is more reasonably priced, they're going to spend more money in the city," says Funk. "It's a win for business owners, it's a win for the community, culturally. It makes a lot of sense."
Most of the members would like to see the hostel open by fall 2010, but Funk would rather take time to make the right decisions instead of racing to cut the ribbon.
"I think we're making great progress in a relatively short amount of time," says Funk. But he adds, "I still consider this almost the very beginning."
An earlier online version of this story incoreectly listed ticket prices for the Aug. 29 fundraiser.