For months Philadelphians have been preparing for the worst: an onslaught of an estimated two million joyful pilgrims descending to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff in his first trip to the United States. The city thought that if the masses came, we’d briefly become the third largest city in America. Some even thought those predictions were understatements.
At three weeks out from the Papal visit, we may have overestimated.
SEPTA has 190,000 Regional Rail passes still up for grabs for people to use to get into the city, about 2/3 of what it had originally set aside. Some 75 percent of Airbnb rentals set aside for the Papal visit weekend aren’t rented. Amtrak says very few trains coming into Philadelphia are sold out, a pivot from what they said to expect months ago. There are still plenty of flights available. And as of this week, about a third of the city’s hotel rooms remained unbooked.
Of course, two million people could theoretically plan their trip to Philly within the next three weeks, especially as word trickles out that, no, all the hotel rooms in the city are not booked.
What hasn’t helped: For several weeks the visit has been bogged down by Secret Service plans to shut down the city, concerns from businesses about how they’ll operate and worries from residents about where the can and can’t travel inside their own city. In fact, a Daily News column written directly to Mayor Michael Nutter about the handling of information around the visit was titled: “An open letter to Mayor Nutter: You. Are. Screwing. This. Up.”
To add insult to injury, the Washington Post this week wrote about Philly’s preparations for the Papal visit, saying “Whether it overdoes or underdoes the papal preparations, Philadelphia risks reinforcing the notion that it is a second-rate stopover between Washington and New York City, both of which will host His Holiness and appear to be taking his arrival in stride.” Ouch.
“The steady flow of mixed signals from the second floor of City Hall has injured the appeal of this,” said Jay A. McCalla, a longtime political consultant and former city managing director, referring to the mayor’s office and staff. “It’s not just a fence. There are actually metrics now like all the SEPTA passes still left, and it’s just three weeks away.”
Within the last week or so, city leaders and World Meeting of Families officials have worked to change the narrative about the Papal visit and have moved toward a positive PR campaign aimed at getting people to look past the potential inconveniences. But it doesn’t eliminate the concerns many people have about fences going up in Center City, transportation being shut down and the prospect of elderly pilgrims walking miles across the Ben Franklin Bridge just to maybe see Pope Francis on a jumbotron.
Low turnouts for massive events like this have happened before. More than a million people were supposed to show up in St. Louis in January 1999 to see Pope John Paul II as his motorcade traveled through the city’s downtown. But despite beautiful weather that some called a miracle, less than 200,000 people showed up. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story from the archives, crowds were described as “from sparse to empty,” and city officials were angry the Secret Service shut down a 56-block security zone and scared people away.
Sandy Hingston at PhillyMag also pointed out another historic flop — this one right here in Philly. The nation’s bicentennial was in 1976, and Philadelphia was expected to draw millions of visitors to celebrate the event in the birthplace of America. But then-Mayor Frank Rizzo called for thousands of troops to come into the city to protect it and his fear-mongering trickled throughout the country.
What ended up happening? As Hingston writes: “Philadelphia gave a birthday party and nobody came.” Sigh.
City leaders are still hopeful that a lot of people — the millions we expected — will show up for this thing. Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association Ed Grose said that while a third of the city’s hotel rooms are still available as they were blocked off in partnership with the World Meeting of Families, he’s still confident they will sell out in time for the Papal visit. Hotel rooms in Center City are ranging from about $149 to $609 a night, which isn’t much different than a regular weekend.
“We’re still expecting to sell out for the weekend of the Papal visit, but we’re just letting people know there are rooms available,” Grose said. “There was a perception we were sold out, and that’s clearly not the case. We have rooms available at a fairly low rates.”
SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey said though there are nearly 200,000 Regional Rail passes left to be sold, what has been sold already — 50,000 for Saturday and 60,000 for Sunday — represents a large increase in capacity compared to what SEPTA is used to handling in a short period of time. On a regular weekday, SEPTA transports about 65,000 passengers over an 18-hour period. This time, it’ll be over about a five-hour period.
Casey also said that though SEPTA has caught some flak for shutting down the majority of its stations to better get people into the city (and now the tickets haven’t sold like they were expected to), SEPTA is still confident in its plan.
“Even if we did carry the people at every station and went back to the old way, we would still have a situation at the end of the event where everyone would have a mass exit out of the city of Philadelphia,” he said. “And by stopping at every station, I can’t get a quick turnaround on that train. So the exodus, if you will, would be extremely long and there would be poor service.”
Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz said only a few trains from Harrisburg to Philadelphia are sold out, but the train company is also expecting a significant amount of bookings to take place in the next few weeks. He said bookings usually increase as an event gets closer, and Amtrak is ready to add capacity if need-be.
Of course, it’s hard to predict how many people will actually show up for the Papal visit until it comes. Nutter, though, is clearly trying to change his messaging from fear to joy. McCalla said he wonders if it’s too late.
“We see the metrics,” McCalla said. “Will a father bring his wife and child into Philadelphia based on new messaging? The facts on the ground haven’t changed.”