Oh, the pains of trying to sell Philadelphia to tourists!
Three years ago, it was the brouhaha over a controversial "English-only" sign at Geno's Steaks in South Philadelphia, which to some made the city seem unwelcoming to non-English-speaking visitors.
Then there was the city's ugly moniker as "Killadelphia," which has only recently begun to fade with the drop in the homicide rate.
The cause of the latest migraine for city tourism officials: Parking Wars, the gritty A&E series that traces the not-so-glamorous workday lives of Philadelphia Parking Authority employees as they boot, tow, and ticket their way through the day.
"My family and I were going to visit Philadelphia, but after watching 'Parking Wars,' we have decided not to because of fear for losing our car!!!!"
"After watching the series, I would NEVER visit your city. Beyond the obscene parking laws, the people in your city come off as rude, hard, cynical and unfriendly."
"I am thrilled to say I have never been to Philadelphia and because of what I saw on the show, I never will. . . . You ought to be ashamed of yourselves."
Hardly sweet nothings to the ears of Meryl Levitz.
"This show is an assault on our city," said Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corp., whose mission is to lure tourists to the city and region. The regional tourism industry last year generated $294 million in local tax revenue.
Since Parking Wars began airing in early 2008, the tourism corporation has received about 200 letters and e-mails, almost all of them criticisms like the ones above.
With nearly 80 percent of 29 million annual visitors traveling here by car, parking has long been an issue when it comes to drawing tourists. As a result, the tourism organization has promoted hotel deals that include free parking and emphasized that Philadelphia is an easily walkable city.
Such strategies helped allay parking concerns.
"With the advent of Parking Wars," Levitz said, "we have a whole other set of emotions to deal with, which is, how are visitors going to be treated by the people of Philadelphia?"
Another tourism agency, the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, does not track the correspondence it receives as closely as does the marketing corporation. However, bureau spokeswoman Danielle Cohn recalled receiving many complaints about the show. "It was, how can Philadelphia allow itself to be portrayed like that?" she said. "It's definitely not something we want from a tourism and marketing perspective."
Some of the show's episodes show Parking Authority employees booting cars and trucks with outstanding tickets as their owners, screaming, watch. Others portray frustrated people - sometimes out-of-towners - trying to get back cars that were towed from the impoundment lot's largely unsympathetic workers.
Some of the drivers, of course, are many times just plain wrong - but that does not appear to change the message being delivered about Philadelphia.
"We were thinking about having our Mooney/Johnson family reunion in Philly until MOST of our family started watching 'Parking Wars.' We all vowed NEVER to even visit your city with how wrong your own citizens are treated."
"The show I watched had one of your ticket writers giving a person from Texas a ticket and said, 'Welcome to Philadelphia.' That's good PR."
A third season begins airing in September, with the possibility of a fourth in the fall of 2010.
The Parking Authority signed a contract with New York producer Hybrid Films in an effort to boost employee morale, authority spokeswoman Linda Miller said. "On that side, it has worked very well. Citizens now go up to greet our officers on the street," she said. The show, said Miller, is expected to also begin filming soon in Detroit.
"I can't speak on what issues make people not come to a city, but would a parking ticket prevent someone from coming?" Miller said. "I'm not convinced of that."
City Councilman Jim Kenney said the show did not accurately portray Philadelphia's parking situation. "It's a negative," he said. "Maybe it boosts morale for them, but not for visitors."
With meter rates increasing and new types of meters being installed, Levitz's group is working with the Parking Authority to distribute more guides at busy locations explaining parking procedures. There are also plans to jointly produce a video on user-friendly parking.
But Parking Wars is another matter.
To Levitz, it's about what the city is getting in return.
Though the contract requires no payment to Philadelphia or the Parking Authority, the show last year donated $73,000 to the city's KIXX fall soccer program. This year, it pledged to give $110,000 to help keep city pools open this summer. A spokesman for Mayor Nutter said the city expects to receive those dollars soon. Daniel Elias, Parking Wars' executive producer and director, did not return a call yesterday.
But Levitz argues that the bad image and reputation that Philadelphia suffers as a result are far costlier, even before considering the lost tourism dollars. Both are points she has shared with Nutter.
Though he said he has not seen the show, Nutter yesterday cited the number of complaints received by Levitz's agency and said, "I'm of course concerned about anyone having an inappropriate impression of Philadelphia, especially just based on a show. I mean, it's TV."
For now, though, it's a show that will go on, evidenced by the promo for the third season:
"Just when you thought it was safe to park again in Philly . . . Parking Wars returns, more riotous than ever! The people you love to hate - the men and women of the Philadelphia Parking Authority - are back, ticketing, booting and towing the cars of problem parkers who express their outrage in furious Philly fashion."