Byko: Some stats to startle Negadelphians

YO, PHILLY, ARE YOU ready for some good news for a change?

In what most economists called a "surprise" (which shows how much they know), real median household income rose 5.2 percent, from $53,718 in 2014 to $56,516 last year. It was the first significant increase since 2007.

The national gain was reflected in Philadelphia, where the median increased even more - 5.5 percent. While the percentage gain was larger, household income is smaller - $41,233 in 2015, up from $39,092 in 2014. The stubborn poverty rate remained at about 26 percent.

The actual good economic news counterbalances Negadelphia, the long-standing emotional feeling that Philly can't catch a break and gets everything wrong.

Philly is the region's poor relative. Median household income is higher in the surrounding area: $65,025 in Camden County; $67,584 in Delaware County; $80,575 in Bucks County; $83,254 in Montgomery County; and a fantastic $90,503 in Chester County.

Reporting was based on census information released Tuesday. A day earlier, I was at a panel celebrating the 20th anniversary of Visit Philadelphia, formerly the Greater Philadelphia Travel and Marketing Corp.

It was launched as a three-year pilot program to snag tourist dollars for Philadelphia, which was being outspent by Boston, Miami, and other cities.

Three individuals get credit for driving the idea: then-Mayor Ed Rendell; then-Gov. Tom Ridge; and Rebecca Rimel, CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The goal of the program, said Visit Philadelphia honcha Meryl Levitz, was to increase overnight stays, build the image of Philadelphia, start partnerships with suburbs, and get Philadelphians to talk Philadelphia up.

Some of the stats were eye-popping.

Overnight leisure visitation in the region doubled between 1997 and 2015 - from 7.3 million visitors to 14.3 million. There was a 287 percent increase in leisure hotel room nights in Center City, from 254,000 to 983,000.

The 2015 numbers translate to $10.7 billion in economic impact and $612 million generated in state and local taxes.

An interesting concept floated was the definition - by Ethan Conner-Ross, director of Econsult Solutions - of tourism as an "export," something "manufactured" here and then "sold" elsewhere. Visit Philadelphia does the "selling."

Developer Carl Dranoff talked about Philly being a boom town in real estate development.

Bruce Crawley, president of Millennium 3 Management, mentioned a new positive attitude, and Brian Communications CEO Brian Tierney talked about a "can-do" spirit, proven by huge events such as the papal visit, the DNC, and Made in America.

I asked Crawley: With everything so positive, how do we explain Negadelphia?

He suggested that negative feelings seem to attach more to the, um, older Philadelphians than the younger ones. It seems generational to him.

"For quite a long time, people in the city believed that it was appropriate to have an inferiority complex compared to other destinations," Crawley told me later.

Philly's major selling point was being located between New York and Washington. "We didn't have the confidence to say we merit coming directly to Philadelphia."

The satirical ad line scripted by Elliott Curson - "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is" - couldn't happen today, Crawley said.

Levitz agreed.

When she arrived here in the '70s, she was perplexed by Philly's hangdog mentality. Where she came from, "we felt we were the luckiest people alive to be born in Chicago," she told me.

Relief came in 1976 with Rocky, whose importance to civic pride can't be exaggerated.

As he bicycles past the Art Museum, Crawley said, tourists always are lined up to pose with the Rocky statue. Four decades later, Rocky is still punching.

"The city embraced not the person who walked out of the ring as a winner in the traditional sense, but the person who walked out winning in a nontraditional sense, the ability to dish it out and not care about what people outside think," Levitz said.

For tourism, however, we do have to care what people outside think, but that starts with people who live here, especially younger Philadelphians who "don't have bad tapes playing in their head," she said.

To millennials, Philadelphia is a place where you don't need a car, where housing is affordable, where you can enjoy a multitude of restaurants or music venues. The population slide has been reversed, thanks to millennials, empty-nesters, and immigrants.

"The Negadelphia has floated away," said Levitz.

When I moved to Philadelphia from New York in the '60s, I loved the things Philadelphians took for granted - history, the grid layout, museums, walkability, the beauty of Fairmount Park, the river drives, the ethnic neighborhoods and the food in them.

They say, if you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

For decades, if you were a Philadelphian, everything looked like doom.

Take another look. Things are changing.