Elaine and Jim Riggs made news 25 years ago when, after winning a vacation sweepstakes that let them go anywhere inthe country – Las Vegas, Honolulu, Disneyland – they chose Philadelphia.
In 1991, the City of Brotherly Love had a less than sterling reputation as a tourist destination, despite its historical attractions. One play on its slogan of the day called it, "The Place That Doesn't Even Try To Love You Back."
Last week, the Tennessee couple visited Philly for the first time in a quarter century, returning at the invitation of Visit Philly to a city named by travel guide publisher Lonely Planet the No. 1 place to visit in the U.S. this year.
It's always been No. 1 with Elaine Riggs, who was drawn to pick Philly over any other destination in the country because of her love of historic places.
"History can be pretty boring for a kid, but when you can see it, almost feel it – touch it – it brings it to a whole different level," she said.
Visit Philly, the city's tourism arm, picked up the tab for the Riggses' return trip and helped arrange for them to revist some of the same locations as a reward for loving Philly when few others did.
As they gazed out onto Dilworth Park, it was unrecognizable from the drab slabs of concrete that was once Dilworth Plaza along the west side of City Hall in 1991.
Now, its bubbling fountains lure children to splash in them, surrounded by lush greenery and bright pink tables and chairs for outdoor seating – a total transformation.
“The addition of so many modern facilities and modern buildings that have been mixed in with the authentic, original buildings that were here, its been done so tastefully,” said Elaine Riggs. “You know, the growth, obviously, that has occurred, that’s probably been the most memorable.”
Visit Philly offered the couple an itinerary, and they loosely followed it – taking trips to the art museum and the "Rocky" statueat the top of the steps to entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Robert Indiana’s LOVE statue, the Italian Market, and City Hall, where they met Mayor Jim Kenney, who invited them into his office for a chat.
The Riggses left with a new Phillies’ baseball signed by the mayor.
“The other thing that we really noticed was so many people doing so many fun things, like whether they’re working downtown or in the restaurants at night or bodegas, we just think that so many young people – millennials, Gen-Xers, and people our age, are walking around, enjoying the city, and I don’t think we saw that in ’91,” said Jim Riggs.
“There’s a music scene and an arts scene, and that’s different, that’s real different. There was none of that back then. I won’t say there weren't people downtown, but there weren’t people having fun downtown like there are now.”