Philadelphia’s emergence as a tourism cynosure — the business of feeding, housing and entertaining the region’s 39 million annual visitors is a $10 billion industry — is the result of both its established attractions and the work of professionals in the tourism development community. What follows are the stories of four of the people whose behind-the-scenes work has contributed to the region’s growth as a destination for visitors from across the nation and around the globe.
If aqua vitæ is the Latin expression for “water of life,” then vita per aquam, “life by the water,” should be Jodie Milkman’s personal motto. For nearly a quarter-century, her working life has been devoted to bringing people to the waters of Philadelphia to make them happy.
“We’re doing things to improve the quality of life in the city and add to what makes Philadelphia such a great place to live and work,” said Milkman, vice president for communications and programming at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, a job she’s held since 1997. The DRWC’s mission, according to the Upper Dublin-bred executive, is to transform an underused asset — the Delaware River waterfront from Allegheny to Oregon avenues — from its historic and largely vanished role as a working port into a “vibrant and thriving” magnet for residents and visitors alike.
After earning her degree in communications at Boston University — where she was among 15 students in a seminar taught by Elie Wiesel — and a brief stint as a desk assistant at KYW Newsradio, Milkman found a home at the Penn’s Landing Corporation (later reorganized as the DRWC). There, she helped program events along the riverfront, including the Israel 50 celebration, Philadelphia’s millennium celebration and the 2000 Republican National Convention host committee’s kickoff event; she went into labor with her middle child, Ryan, in the midst of that one.
One of Milkman’s first projects after joining the Penn’s Landing Corporation in 1992 was the creation of what is now the Independence Blue Cross River Rink. Today, the seasonal ice rink is just one of many riverfront attractions she helps create, program and manage.
“We just finished our most successful season ever at the rink; it’s alive and thriving and it’s exciting to be a part of it,” Milkman said. “My kids grew up ice skating there. Today, kids assume the River Rink has always been around.” In addition to Ryan, now an eighth-grader at William Penn Charter School, she and husband, Sam Milkman, a music industry executive, are the parents of Max, a senior at Whitemarsh High School, and daughter Sydney, a seventh-grader at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. All three also went through lower grades at the Perelman Jewish Day School. The family belongs to Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in Erdenheim, where Milkman previously served on its board.
Another wintertime waterfront activity Milkman and her family have enjoyed over the years — and one she’s long been involved in organizing — is the New Year’s Eve fireworks shows on the river. “The fireworks is my favorite night of the year, and it’s been wonderful to be part of helping start this tradition,” she said.
As popular as the winter activities have become, it’s the warm weather that brings the big crowds to the Delaware River waterfront. Milkman and the DRWC have striven to go beyond the short-term impact of summer festivals to create a number of riverfront destinations that appeal to locals and tourists alike.
The Race Street Pier, soon to begin its fifth season, was one of the early visible improvements of the DRWC to attract more everyday visitors to the riverfront as part of its ambitious master plan, which calls for open space attractions every half-mile along the central waterfront. The former Pier 11 on the south side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge features two levels for viewing the river, enjoying tree and flower plantings, and becoming part of the strong physical experience of reconnecting the city and the river.
The Spruce Street Harbor Park, created as a “pop-up” temporary attraction last year centered around outfitted barges and a floating garden, will be back this summer. Originally planned for only one season, attendance in 2014 of more than half a million visitors convinced the DRWC to bring it back for 2015, starting Memorial Day weekend.
This summer, to further entice visitors to public spaces on both sides of the river, the DRWC will take over operation of the Riverfront Ferry connecting the Independence Seaport Museum on the west bank to Camden’s waterfront attractions on the east bank. But instead of just the 12-minute interstate crossing, Milkman said the ferry also will run north-and-south as a shuttle between venues on the Philadelphia side.
Some people like to give parties, crafting a common, enjoyable experience for a defined group, whether it be a small circle of friends gathering for a birthday celebration or tens of thousands within an “affinity group” attending a convention.
As far as Amy Needle is concerned, that’s been her life’s work. And the celebration she’s been organizing for the past 25 years has been for nothing less than Philadelphia’s history. From her first day as an intern for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PCVB) to her role today as president and chief operating officer of Historic Philadelphia, Inc., Needle has been throwing a continuous party celebrating the city’s and region’s role in the American Experiment.
“I always knew I wanted to do events, even when studying communications at the University of Kansas,” said Needle, who found herself in Wichita when her family moved to the Sunflower State from King of Prussia, where her parents were among the founders of Temple Brith Achim. She returned here in 1989 to serve at PCVB, working under the guidance of Meryl Levitz to create and plan a series of events aimed at bringing people to the historic district and Penn’s Landing. It was at the PCVB that she met her future husband, Larry, who now runs that organization’s Philadelphia Sports Congress.
“We were looking for events to create reasons for folks to come here,” said Needle. Among the early projects she worked on were the Jambalaya Jam and other celebrations. “This was well before the blossoming of all the great restaurants and night life we have now” that draws out-of-towners and suburbanites alike to the city.
After almost 10 years working, creating and managing events for the PCVB, she was asked by then-Mayor Ed Rendell to head up Philadelphia’s millennial celebration, an 18-month, $5 million party. Her next project was to help plan events surrounding the opening of the National Constitution Center in 2003.
Her success on those two projects led Rendell, newly elected as Pennsylvania governor, to charge her with identifying what else could be done to enliven the experience for Philadelphia visitors. That $10 million Philadelphia Heritage Project led to the creation of what is now known as Historic Philadelphia, Inc.
The programs and facilities offered by Historic Philadelphia enrich the visitor experience by complementing the attractions maintained by the National Park Service, including Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the museums and institutions around and near Independence Mall. Historic Philadelphia operates the Betsy Ross House, the Lights of Liberty experience, Franklin Square and the Once Upon a Nation storytelling program.
Although not associated with one particular landmark or facility, Once Upon a Nation reaches most visitors to the historic district through its team of actors, dressed in Colonial and Revolutionary era attire, wandering the neighborhood as well as Valley Forge National Historic Park, acting as both ambassadors and educators. At 10 “story benches” scattered throughout the district, and more at Valley Forge, they tell the tale of Philadelphia and American independence. In addition to tourists, the educational program reaches 6,000 students each year. In late winter, the actors attend the “Benstitute,” where they work on their presentations under the guidance of Sandy Lloyd, Historic Philadelphia’s resident historian.
The Lights of Liberty show grew out of an idea from legendary city planner Ed Bacon, supported by Rendell, to create an evening program for visitors to the historic district, Needle said. That program ran for 10 years and moved indoors to Historic Philadelphia’s PECO Theater at Sixth and Chestnut streets.
“We’re looking at what a new outdoor show could or should be,” said Needle. “We need a nighttime experience for visitors in the historic district. For that reason, we created an ‘after hours’ tour with stops at City Tavern and other locations.”
Franklin Square marks its ninth season this spring since being reborn under Historic Philadelphia’s sponsorship. The organization took what had become a derelict, forgotten park — one of the city’s five original squares — and turned it into a must-visit for families looking for activities like miniature golf, carousel rides and state-of-the-art playgrounds.
Historic Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross House remains a staple for tourists and, after Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, one of the district’s most visited attractions. Most historians regard claims of the role of the seamstress in creating the American flag as specious, but the popular myth provides Historic Philadelphia with the opportunity to tell the story of life in colonial Philadelphia and the early days of the American republic.
“We get testimonials from visitors all the time, even in winter, of how they enjoyed a storytelling bench or a chat with one of our ‘history-maker’ actors, how it changed their visit to Philadelphia,” said Needle. “We’re telling not just history, but history about people, not just the Founding Fathers, but the founding mothers and kids. You can find all those stories here that people really want to hear. It humanizes history, makes it real and makes it fun.”
Larry Needle’s job as executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress since 1996 is to reel in tournaments and events that help to fill the region’s hotel rooms.
The big one — the 2016 Olympics — got away, but Needle has landed plenty of other fish since joining the group in 1991, including last year’s Bassmaster Elite tournament on the Delaware River, where the winner among the more than 100 anglers walked away with a $100,000 prize. Like all of the special sporting events sought after and organized by Needle’s group — part of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau — the fishing tourney generated significant spending in local hotels and other businesses dependent on the tourism industry.
“The bass tournament is a great example of how sporting events can contribute to the region’s economy,” said Needle. “None of us saw this coming before the opportunity presented itself, but we partnered with Jodie Milkman and the team over at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation and with youth anglers’ groups to help produce the event. It opened a lot of people’s eyes to a different part of the city — the waterfront.”
Sports have become a significant economic generator for cities over the last few decades, according to Needle. He has played a significant role in bringing a wide range of events to the region, including the ESPN X Games, the NBA and Major League Baseball all-star weekends, the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four, U.S. championships in both gymnastics and figure skating, the World Dragon Boat Racing Championship, the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championships and NCAA Men’s Basketball East Regionals.
“The Sports Congress works as a facilitator to both initiate and, in some cases, bid for events,” said Needle. “Once an event is booked, we work as part of a team assisting in ensuring the event’s success.”
Most of the time, another institution serves as sponsor and organizer of the event, but one Philadelphia classic is directly hosted by the Sports Congress: the Army-Navy Game. “We produce the Army-Navy Game on behalf of the city, with responsibility for working with the academies, the city, the Eagles — we handle almost every aspect of the event,” he said.
Needle joined the Philadelphia Sports Congress as promotions director after serving as communications manager for what is now Maccabi USA, the Philadelphia-based organization supporting the World Maccabi Games, working the 1989 games in Israel as press attaché for the U.S. team. He returned to Israel in 2013, this time cheering on son Eli as a member of the U.S. junior basketball squad.
In addition to Eli, a junior at Lower Merion High, he and wife, Amy, are also the parents of Seth, an eighth-grader at Bala Cynwyd Middle School. They are members of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.
“There’s a lot of overlap in the hospitality industry, but for the most part, we stay in our own lanes,” said Needle of the times when he and his wife might interact due to their profession.
Interested in sports since his childhood in the Baltimore suburbs, Needle’s introduction to big-time sports came at the University of North Carolina, where he was a member of the athletic powerhouse’s sports information team and a journalism major. One of his roles was to keep the statistics sheets for the Tar Heels’ football and basketball teams. At the end of every basketball game, he handed the stat sheet to legendary coach Dean Smith, who died in February at age 83.
While the big events like the Army-Navy Game and the NCAA championships attract most of the attention, Needle sees plenty of additional opportunities in the burgeoning youth sports market. But while high-profile venues like the stadiums in South Philadelphia are ideal for the big-name events, they aren’t conducive to the youth market. For that reason, Needle and other players in the tourism industry are studying the development of a multisport complex in the region that would not only attract participants and visitors from away, but also serve the local community.
“We want these youth teams and their families to come here and experience Philadelphia, to run the Rocky steps at the museum, visit the Liberty Bell,” said Needle. Success in luring youth sports events to the city would undoubtedly lead to repeat visits by the participants’ families, with increased revenue for the region’s hotels, restaurants and other businesses serving tourists.
Needle’s exposure to the Philadelphia sports scene — and a particular interest in basketball — led him to learn about the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association and its Sphas basketball team.
Needle found the challenges and anti-Semitism faced by the Sphas inspiring and delved into its history, specifically the role of Red Klotz, a player who later became its coach and owner. The Sphas gained international fame as the regular touring opponent of the Harlem Globetrotters, ultimately morphing into the team known since 1950 as the Washington Generals.
Needle, who considers himself a writer first and foremost, tells the story of Klotz’s 50-year career in the children’s book he authored, Homecourt: The True Story of the Best Basketball Team You Never Heard Of, about the Sphas.
“There are great messages and lessons that the Sphas story tells,” he said. “It’s an incredible story.”
Like many involved in the city’s tourism industry, Cara Schneider has a story to tell. Instead of telling it to potential visitors, however, she provides the narrative of Philadelphia’s story to the national press as director of media relations for Visit Philadelphia, which promotes the city and nearby Pennsylvania countryside as a tourism destination.
Much of Philadelphia’s good ink in recent years is simply the result of having a great story to tell. But publications don’t write about the city as a tourist destination unless they’re educated about it. That’s the job of Schneider and her staff, who “pitch” editors and journalists to write about the region’s attractions. Social media is an important part of the organization’s efforts, too, but getting profiled in magazines and newspaper travel sections helps draw many visitors to the region.
Schneider and her staff’s latest big score came in January, when The New York Times included Philadelphia on its list of “52 Places to Go in 2015.” “The fact that we were No. 3 on the list just blew us away,” she exclaimed.
The Times travel section piece — which continues to be featured on its website and mobile app months after its initial Jan. 9 newspaper appearance — remains a popular topic of discussion locally. “I attended six major lunches in January and February with various civic organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, and that article was mentioned in the opening remarks just about every time,” said Schneider.
“But it’s much bigger than just a single story,” she said. “It’s a great time to be promoting Philadelphia, a city which has reinvented itself. And what visitors love about the city are the same things its residents do.”
Schneider should know. The Elkins Park native has lived in the city’s Fairmount/Francisville neighborhood since receiving her degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania and has been active in the community, including with Congregation Rodeph Shalom, the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation and Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens. Her parents and two of her brothers live in the city, with another brother in the nearby suburbs.
“We’re very much Philly people,” said Schneider. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, she said, she “naively thought I’d move away after school, but Philadelphia is home; it just feels right.”
Schneider describes her career path as working “for an alphabet soup of good-mission places.” She started out after graduation working in the development department of WHYY, where she was more involved in community outreach than traditional fundraising. After seven years there, she moved on to what was then Jewish Employment Vocational Services (now JEVS Human Services) as director of development.
“I love culture and care about social services, but what I’m most pumped about is the city itself,” said Schneider. Looking to move on, she identified the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation, then only a three-year-old organization, as a place where she could use her public relations skills to advance perceptions about Philadelphia. She joined GPTMC — now Visit Philadelphia — in 1999, when the organization was working on a three-year program funded by the city, state and Pew Foundation to demonstrate the region’s tourism potential, as well as planning for the 2000 Republican National Convention.
News, good or bad, tends to run in cycles. Right now, Philadelphia is on a roll as far as the travel press is concerned, especially with this September’s visit by Pope Francis during the World Meeting of Families and the Democratic National Convention the following summer. Cara Schneider’s job is to build even more on all that “good press” to bring even more visitors — and the dollars they spend — to Philadelphia.
Robert Libkind is a longtime journalist who writes frequently for the Jewish Exponent’s Philacatessen blog (jewishexponent.com/philacatessen) as well as for Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.