With top historic sites shuttered, others thrive

Stephanie Fayolle (left) and Elizabeth Loupi, here from France, visit the National Constitution Center, run by a nonprofit and immune to the government shutdown.
Stephanie Fayolle (left) and Elizabeth Loupi, here from France, visit the National Constitution Center, run by a nonprofit and immune to the government shutdown. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 17, 2013

At the National Constitution Center, the government shutdown is turning out to be good for business: Attendance is up 57 percent.

Elfreth's Alley drew a bigger weekend crowd, Christ Church got an initial bump, and attendance is up slightly at the tours and attractions run by Historic Philadelphia Inc.

It appears that the shutdown that closed Philadelphia's biggest historic sites, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, may be diverting visitors to places steeped in Revolutionary history but operated by nonprofit organizations - and largely immune to the cutoff in federal funding.

But any failure of the federal government to reopen the major destinations would eventually harm the smaller tourist sites around them, managers said.

Independence Mall was empty Monday, with brown leaves blowing across unmowed grass. On Arch Street, though, two school buses unloaded dozens of children headed to the Constitution Center. Other visitors from around the world came through the front door.

"We wanted to go to the national park, but it's closed," said Stephanie Fayolle, 39, who escorted a friend from France through the center's exhibit of Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographs.

Steve Rosenberg, the center's vice president of marketing and communications, said, "In the short term, we benefit from being, quote-unquote, the only one standing," but it is crucial for big nearby sites to reopen.

"We need the bell, we need the hall, we need all of those attractions to be open, because we work together," he said.

Over the weekend, the center drew 2,954 visitors, compared with 1,876 at the same time last year. Attendance on the Columbus Day holiday was up 13 percent.

Rosenberg credits the marketing and public-relations departments, which even before the shutdown began spreading word through local media that the center would be open even if the government closed. The sales department aggressively sought out groups that were scheduled to visit places closed by the shutdown, redirecting 20 to the center, he said.

At Elfreth's Alley, known as the nation's oldest residential street, weekend attendance was up about 30 percent, according to Edward Mauger, president of the Elfreth's Alley Association.

Christ Church, where some of the Founding Fathers worshipped, experienced a 12 percent increase in visitors during the shutdown's first week, although last week the numbers receded to slightly below normal, said Anne McLaughlin, the church's director of tourism.

"There was a gentleman from Oregon who said Philadelphia was on his bucket list, and he'd come to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell," she said, noting that he saw them only from outside.

At Historic Philadelphia, the nonprofit group that manages the Historic Philadelphia Center, Franklin Square, and the Betsy Ross House, attendance is up slightly when it might have tanked.

"If we add all of it up, we're on the rise," said executive director Amy Needle.

Visits to the Historic Philadelphia Center, which houses the Liberty 360 3-D Show, is up. Visits to Franklin Square and its Liberty Carousel are up. The Independence After Hours dinner tour - halted during the shutdown's first week - is back up and running. Attendance at the Betsy Ross House is down, Needle said, perhaps because school groups canceled visits to the mall.

Comparing the period of the shutdown to the same period last year, attendance has grown just slightly, from 8,335 to 8,376.

"The general word was out that things were closed," Needle said. "We've been really trying, like so many of our partners around the mall, to get the word out that there's many other things to do."

The shutdown, which enters its 16th day Wednesday, is creating winners and losers, and not just in Philadelphia.

Initially the shutdown closed 401 national parks from New York to California and furloughed more than 20,000 employees. A dozen parks in New York, Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota, and Utah have reopened, with states paying the cost.

Through the first 10 days of the shutdown, closed parks were missing a combined 715,000 visitors a day, and costing surrounding businesses $76 million a day in spending, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, a nonpartisan nonprofit group.

Pennsylvania accounts for a significant part of that loss, according to Headwaters Economics, an independent research group.

In 2010, Gettysburg National Military Park welcomed one million visitors who spent $66 million and supported 1,141 jobs. Valley Forge Park had 1.6 million visitors who spent $60 million and supported 726 jobs. Independence National Historical Park drew 3.7 million people who spent $151 million and supported 2,170 jobs.

"Independence is one of the biggest drivers of all the national parks," said Joan Anzelmo, spokeswoman for the coalition and former superintendent of Colorado National Monument. "It's very, very unsettling that our officials cannot do their jobs and keep the government open."

Most state governments lack the money to reopen federal sites and should not have to do so, Anzelmo said, adding that the shutdown had created " 'have states' and the 'have-not states.' "

In Pennsylvania, national parks will stay closed, officials said. The state lacks money to reopen them.

At the Constitution Center on Monday, as crowds moved through the building, "We kept saying we should see the sights in Philadelphia," said Kavian Moradhassel, 41, visiting from Ottawa, Ontario, and unhappily surprised to find the Liberty Bell and other attractions closed.

He and others found themselves engrossed, though, in the 135 images of the Pulitzer exhibit.

"Our biggest challenge is communicating to people that we are open," Rosenberg said. "The general population is confused. . . . While I want everyone to come to the Constitution Center, there's still enough to see beyond us."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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