Brian X. McCrone

25 Years Later, Philly ‘Cool Factor' Has Replaced ‘Self-Esteem Problem'

When Elaine Riggs won a vacation sweepstakes 25 years ago and chose a free trip to Philadelphia over other offered destinations like the Super Bowl in Florida or Malibu, Calif., her choice was so surprising to the host city that local news outlets did stories about her.

“Back when we arrived in 1991, people were so amazed that someone would pick Philadelphia,” she said.

Her then-friend who has since become her husband, Jim, accompanied her and remembers NBC10 reporter Bill Baldini greeting them at the airport.

“The city had an obvious self-esteem problem,” Jim Riggs said.

Fast forward to 2016, and the couple from Tennessee is back in town for another vacation -- and they said Wednesday over breakfast at the Hotel Palomar in Center City that they have found a city filled with self-confidence.

“The big difference is it’s a cool place and they’re owning it,” Jim Riggs said, as Elaine Riggs agreed: “It’s a place to be now.”

The Riggses’ visit this week -- they arrived Tuesday, and are staying until Friday -- was an idea-turned-reality by Visit Philadelphia, the city’s tourism and marketing agency.

Visit Philly thought it would be a good piece of publicity to bring back a couple who one tourism official, Cara Schneider, called “prescient” to Philadelphia’s future when they made that fateful choice in 1991.

Visit Philly President Meryl Levitz first conjured bringing back Elaine and Jim Riggs after reading a story in February about the Riggses’ first trip. The story highlighted the Riggses at a time when Philadelphia was riding a wave of national accolades and honors.

At the time, Philadelphia was recognized by travel magazine and website Lonely Planet as the top choice on its annual "Best in the U.S." list. A couple months earlier in 2015, The New York Times ranked the city No. 3 on its international list of “52 Places to Visit.”

Those touts followed other noteworthy events and designations for the city: the Democratic National Committee announced it would holds its presidential convention here in July 2016; Pope Francis visited in September; and UNESCO gave Philly the title of World Heritage site: the first American city with that honor, joining places like Cairo, Jerusalem, and Paris.

In the February story, former Mayor Michael Nutter boasted of the great strides his native city has made in recent years, easily visible on the streets and in the clouds.

"Look at the skyline. It's incredible and keeps growing," Nutter said. "Just imagine 30 years ago, none of them was there. None of them."

As Elaine and Jim Riggs ate an early breakfast in the Palomar's lobby restaurant looking out on 17th and Sansom streets, they remarked on how smooth the transition for Philadelphia seems to have been.

“They’ve done a marvelous job of blending new and old,” Elaine Riggs said.

After breakfast, the Riggses took a taxi to Sixth and Market streets and met tour guide Ed Mauger about 10 a.m. They got a look at the President’s House where Washington and Adams presided as America’s first presidents, then checked out the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

For dinner after they arrived Tuesday, they chose Rittenhouse Square bistro Parc -- a fine beginning to a trip for two retirees who have traveled near and far in their 22 years of marriage. Last year, they drove to New Orleans. Recent other trips included County Claire, Ireland, and the coastal region of Turkey.

This summer, they’re taking a car ride to Elaine Riggs’ hometown in North Dakota for her high school graduating class’s 50th anniversary party.

She was reminded of another North Dakotan who is going to make a splash in Philadelphia soon -- Eagles quarterback heir apparent, Carson Wentz.

“I was thinking, ‘Boy, he’s in for a shock,’” Elaine Riggs said of Wentz, who has spent his entire football career in North Dakota.

The couple planned to see as many sights in the city as they could before leaving around noon on Friday. Jim Riggs counted Mutter Museum as one they expected to get in. Later on Wednesday, Schneider said she planned to show the couple the Art Museum steps and Rocky statue, and then bring them to meet Mayor Jim Kenney at City Hall.

Schneider said Visit Philly had put together an initial itinerary that offered them stops at some regional attractions like Longwood Gardens, a place they visited during the 1991 trip.

But she said the Riggses figured they’d have more than enough places to visit in the city itself.

“They felt there was so much to do in town they chose to spend Thursday in the city as well,” Schneider said. “Again, very prescient!”

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