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What happens to a city when the million people expected for the Pope don’t show up?

It’s just a few months before a popular Pope is coming to town for two days to conduct a public mass and ride in his motorcade down the main corridor of the city. Officials are scrambling to shut down streets and perform massive security checks for the onslaught of more than a million tourists. Businesses are hunkering down, but also prepping for the economic boom they’ve been waiting for.

It’s true today in Philadelphia. It was also true a few months before January 1999 in St. Louis, MO. More than a million people were supposed to show up to get a glimpse of Pope John Paul II on a 68-degree day — some called the temperature a “divine miracle” — as his motorcade traveled through the city’s downtown.

But less than 200,000 people came.

As Philadelphia’s leaders and organizers prepare for Pope Francis’ September trip to be “the second or third largest event in American history,” they’re trying to estimate just how many people are going to turn up in our city. They’ve said they expect between one and two million.

“Everyone hasn’t called me to tell me that they’re showing up,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said during a press conference. “From a planning standpoint, we always have to anticipate the realistic possibilities.”

If the city’s predictions are right, Philadelphia could become (at least) the third largest city in America while people flood the region for Pope-related festivities. Some say the city could be underestimating the number of people who show up.

And while there are some key differences between Philadelphia and St. Louis — namely convenience of getting there — organizers for that trip clearly overestimated the number of people who would show, and some blamed it on fear-mongering of traffic, security and closed streets that kept people away.

When Pope John Paul II traveled to St. Louis for a 31-hour trip in 1999, he performed an indoor mass that drew 104,000 people, attended a youth rally with 21,000 young Catholics and led a prayer service for 2,000 at the St. Louis Cathedral. But those in St. Louis, according to Post-Dispatch archives, expected hundreds of thousands of people to line the streets of St. Louis to catch a glimpse of the Pope — especially as he was in poor health at the time.

But that’s not what happened. In a Jan. 27 Post-Dispatch story, the reporter described the motorcade crowds as “from sparse to empty.”

From the paper:

For weeks, the police and the press – including this paper – had warned St. Louisans that this most reverent of events would generate the ungodliest of crowds and traffic.

Apparently, hundreds of thousands of people heeded the warnings. They stayed home to watch the pope on television.

Downtown’s deserted look drew sighs from some who had been banking on big crowds.

During the visit in St. Louis, one parking owner estimated that of his 20,000 spots he owned downtown, 2,000 were filled. Another said that of 101 spots, he had just one paying customer over two days. Less than 200,000 people showed up in total. If fact, with 2,500 media credentials issued, there was actually a journalist for every 60 people there.

People were disappointed, and a number of city officials lamented that the Secret Service shut down more of the city — a 56-block security zone — than was needed and scared people away from what would inevitably become massive traffic jams. Restaurants and small businesses were livid with the city. Many had large buffet spreads ready for the thousands of customers, and the food ended up going cold and wasted because they simply didn’t show up in huge numbers.

“Downtown looked like a city during World War II,” one business owner told the local paper. “They went too far. It scared a lot of people here,” said another.

The Secret Service will be in Philadelphia this September when the Pope comes on our turf and will likely declare a security zone around where the Pope will be. It’s unclear as to what that is yet, and city organizers haven’t yet told the public or the press what streets in the city will be shut down for the visit.

What they have said is that SEPTA could be a disaster with cars running to far less stations inside and outside the city than normal, and that driving a private car for the weekend will not be a viable option for anyone — tourist or resident. City leaders say there will be such a high influx of people, that it will snarl traffic worse than the 2008 Phillies championship parade.

And while there are certainly some fears regarding traffic and massive crowds here in Philadelphia, predictions and the past show that another situation like St. Louis in ’99 is probably unlikely. In 1979 when John Paul came to Philadelphia, crowds to see the Pontiff were estimated to be between 1.2 and 2 million people.

At the time, Pope John Paul also held public masses in New York and DC. But Philadelphia is Pope Francis’ first visit to America, and it’ll likely draw Catholics from those large cities, too.

Hotels in surrounding counties have been booked up for months, and inns as far as the Poconos are filled with pilgrims heading to our city to just get a glimpse of Pope Francis.

Photo: Pope St. John Paul II conducts mass in St. Louis in 1999 via Catholic News Service

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