Updated Jan. 3, 6:30 p.m.
Thousands of federal employees in Philadelphia are out of work for the end of the year due to President Trump’s tug-of-war over funding the border wall. But on Saturday afternoon, security guards and tour guides from the federally-run Independence National Historical Park were getting paid — good news for the throngs of tourists wrapped around the block at the city’s biggest historic landmark.
That the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall were able to welcome visitors is thanks to Visit Philly. The city’s main tourism agency forked over $32,000 to cover operating costs at the iconic sites from Friday through Sunday.
$32,000 for three days of operations? Cara Schneider, Visit Philly’s media relations director, said the National Park Service provided that figure as an estimate for weekend operational costs. (An NPS spokesperson could not be reached last week…due to the shutdown.)
“We expect this will pay for itself for Philadelphia, thanks to visitor spending from the visitors now able to visit the Hall and the Bell this weekend,” Schneider told Billy Penn.
The shutdown came in time for the second busiest week of the year on mall grounds. Park officials estimate they receive between 70,000 and 100,000 visitors between Christmas and New Year’s Day — and they didn’t want travelers to cancel plans at the eleventh hour.
It was the first time Philly’s tourism booster has ever propped up a government out of pocket — and it all came together in about five days.
The cost of doing tourism
Many bureaucracies have a reputation for making obstacles of the simplest things — like paying a water bill. So one might think that a private company subsidizing a fraction of the federal government’s workforce for a few days would take, well, some logistical finesse.
Enter brand new Visit Philly CEO Jeff Guaracino, who apparently isn’t jaded enough to let that stop him.
When the partial shutdown went into effect just days Christmas, Guaracino approached INHP and city officials to discuss what it would take to keep the sites re-open the sites for the upcoming holiday weekend, Schneider explained in an email.
Per the Inquirer, INHP first told Guarancino it would cost $75,000 to keep the parks open through the end of the year — a hefty sum. He halved the price with a compromise: open only the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall. Officials from both parties expedited a contract and were ready in time for the weekend rush, albeit with limited services.
Was the $32,000 just gathering dust? Schneider said the agency maintains “marketing dollars we can re-allocate towards timely opportunities like this.” The funds are designated as a “special donation,” meaning the agency cannot recoup the money. But officials expect a sizeable return for the city throughout the holiday weekend. Tourism remains one a growth sector for Philly. Visitors had an economic impact of $7.1 billion in 2017 — up from $6.8 billion the year prior — a figure that accounts for lodging, food, entertainment, transit and other costs, according to the agency’s annual report.
Visit Philly receives 80 percent of its funding from the city’s hotel tax, and another six percent from state grants. 14 percent stems from “other revenue sources.” It’s also unclear how the so-called donation moves from private hands into the government payroll.
Paying Washington’s tab
This marks Visit Philly’s first time covering the federal government during a shutdown, but other cities and states have done similarly to keep their tourist-heavy parks open.
New York state financed the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island during the federal government shutdown in January 2018, and they’re doing it again for the current funding freeze-out.
Meanwhile in the southwestern U.S., the state of Utah paid to keep visitors centers open at Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks through Saturday. Here’s a full list of all the national parks operating with limited services through the shutdown.
In shutdowns past, both in Philly and at other major tourist hubs, federal workers have shared stories about working unpaid — sometimes without their supervisors’ knowledge — to keep visitors informed.