Independence National Historical Park's architect of change has been promoted.
Now, Philadelphia's hospitality industry hopes that Mary A. Bomar's move up to interim regional director — overseeing National Park Service properties in 13 Northeastern states — will be able to link the city with more of the regional and national historic areas. Many believe the "interim" tag will be temporary and that she will eventually be named to the job permanently, in which she'll oversee landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, Boston's Freedom Trail and the Liberty Bell. She'll continue to be based in Philadelphia.
In two years as superintendent of Independence Park, tourism officials say Bomar was responsible for bringing an air of openness and consensus — qualities that may have been lacking prior to her January 2003 appointment.
"Her biggest accomplishment has been turning Independence Park from a 'no' to a 'yes,'" said Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. "She's been a working partner. You know your questions and suggestions will get a response. The mission of the park service is to preserve and protect. But it's also to interpret and experience. Mary wants partners and she wants change."
As superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, Bomar was responsible for 60 park service properties here. She has overseen the opening of the Liberty Bell Center and been a partner in the opening of the National Constitution Center. She's also mediated disputes over post-9/11 security issues and how to depict slavery at the proposed president's house exhibit, just steps from the Liberty Bell.
Last year, with the help of a new Liberty Bell Center and other attractions, the bell and Independence Hall had 1.86 million visitors, a gain of 81 percent and well above a pre-9/11 level of 1.58 million in 2000.
In balancing both the mission of the park service with more modern concerns like marketing and "visitor experience," many hospitality officials hope Bomar can leverage her power within Philadelphia to encompass the region and beyond.
"She's a very smart woman and she understands people," said Tom Muldoon, president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. "She has a better chance of knitting together the historical parts of the region. She's someone that works well at the front of the house, but also the back of the house. You gotta have both."
"Mary reached out and connected with the community," said Donald U. Smith, executive director of the Christ Church Preservation Trust. "During a very difficult time in which Independence Park has struggled with security issues for Independence Hall and the bell, she connected with the individuals and organizations who would be most affected."
One example of Bomar's public and private capabilities was her handling of the debate over whether to close the 500 block of Chestnut Street, which separates the park's crown jewels — the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
Bomar inherited the closure, which resulted from the 9/11 security concerns. The closure enflamed tempers and pitted businesses, the City of Philadelphia and some hospitality figures against the park service. Bomar agreed to hear out critics, opening up a series of public meetings. After discussion with the U.S. Department of Interior, the Bomar helped reopen the street to traffic.
"The story of all the good will with businesses, residents and stakeholder organizations that Mary has created in just two years should be called 'Miracle in Philadelphia Part 2.' The Park Service has regained our trust and re-energized the support of the community at large," said one of the most vocal critics of the Chestnut Street closing, Ann Meredith, president of Lights of Liberty and the Independence Mall Business and Residents Coalition.
"Mary can ensure her legacy here at the most complex of all the parks by resolving security — our 'temporary' bike racks encircling the bell and hall have been up for 3.5 years — along with completing the mall landscaping."
Landscaping of Independence Mall will cost an estimated $17 million, about $8 million of which has been raised. The project includes removing the old Liberty Bell Pavilion, which was used from 1976 to 2003.
"It's a critical need and would help all the attractions. Let's finish the job," said Levitz of GPTMC.
William W. Moore, president and CEO of Independence Visitor Center Corp., said top priorities for Bomar should be updating security measures around Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, resolving infighting over the planned Valley Forge National Historical Park visitor center, and restoring budget support for the parks.
In short, he advised: "Do for the regional park system what she did for INHP."
A key part of Bomar's success has been a good relationship with Gov. Ed Rendell's office.
"Under Mary's stewardship, we have seen a sea change in the park service's efforts at collaboration and even leadership in recognizing that the Americans for whom we preserve these national icons are visitors and tourists too, and that visitors are to be welcomed and embraced at Independence National Historic Park," said Mickey Rowley, deputy secretary of the state's Tourism, Film and Economic Development office.
"I see Ms. Bomar's biggest opportunity in the regional job is to corral all the stakeholders in safe and accessible national parks, including National Park Service in Washington, tourism marketing groups, hotels and government. [She should advocate] a rational and sensible customer-focused security plan. With Mary's new clout in Washington, we are confident we'll have an ally in this effort."