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Source: Philadelphia Business Journal
Date: April 14, 2003
Byline: Peter Van Allen

Flagging attendance

Security barriers and long lines at the Liberty Bell may be a reality for the future.

But many in the hospitality industry worry that, unless the National Park Service makes some changes, lower attendance at Independence National Historic Park will also be a reality.

"One of the things I've felt strongly is that it's a special place. People make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to see this place. They should have a quality experience," said Hobart G. "Hobie" Cawood, who served as superintendent of the operation that oversees the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall from 1971-91. New security measures "made it inconvenient. I thought that was a shame. I thought, 'Is it necessary?'"

In coming months, Independence Mall — and its security — will be unusually high profile. July 4 marks the opening of the $210 million National Constitution Center, which is expected to attract 1 million visitors in its first year. If construction continues on schedule, the new Liberty Bell Center will open this fall.

Overseeing much of this is the park's new superintendent, Mary Bomar, a 13-year veteran of the park service. She is only the third person in that job in the past three decades, following Cawood and Martha Aikens, who left for another post in the park service last summer.

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Bomar and the park service face major challenges, most pressing of which is finding a balance in how much security is necessary. At the same time, many hope the new museums and the end to several years of construction help reverse five years of declining attendance at Philadelphia's best known icon, the Liberty Bell.

The Liberty Bell has been in its current location since 1976. That year, the nation's Bicentennial, the Liberty Bell attracted 3.2 million visitors. Since then, the bell consistently attracted 1.5 million visitors a year until 2001, when visitorship fell to 1.2 million and then last year, when it dropped to 921,000.

Park spokesman Phil Sheridan insists the park's mission is preservation, not visitor numbers.

"It's not like a theme park," he said. "[Attendance] at buildings goes up and down. ... Perhaps it's nothing more than recognition that there's other things to see."

But Cawood and others say the park service has gotten away from the idea that Independence Mall is for the public.

"In 20 years as superintendent, I had more of a visitor orientation than a security orientation," said Cawood, who is now retired and living near Winston-Salem, N.C. "It's seems like a little thing, but you want people to have a quality experience. You can't ever be absolutely, 100 percent sure with any security. ... There are 10,000 [office] windows facing Independence Hall. Someone could fire from a window."

When Mayor John F. Street ordered the barriers removed from the 500 block of Chestnut Street, he said that a terrorist would have a better chance of blowing up Independence Hall from the 6th Street side.

For now, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell continue to be surrounded by interlocking bike racks, Jersey barriers and increased ranger presence.

"First, the park service needs to get rid of those ugly bicycle racks. I'm sure that people returning home from Philadelphia tell their family, friends and coworkers how unattractive it was to visit here and that their photos are ruined by all the gray metal around buildings. Who'd want to come here after hearing that?" said Nancy Gilboy, chair of the Independence Hall Association and director of the International Visitors Center.

Gilboy suggests, at the very least, that people in the security lines be given shows by Historic Philadelphia Inc., the troupe of actors that the park service hires to depict colonial days.

In recent years, former superintendent Aikens was criticized for being aloof and perpetuating an ivory tower mentality at the park service.

Some argue that, with so much of the funding for projects on Independence Hall coming from the city, state, private foundations and directly from the public, the park service can no longer afford to be reclusive. It needs to be accountable to the public.

Of the $19 million cost of the new Liberty Bell Center, just $354,000 came from the park service. The city kicked in $9.6 million, while the Annenberg Foundation contributed $6.3 million. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the William Penn Foundation made up much of the balance.

Bomar said, indeed, her goal is to work more closely with the city and tourism officials, as well as the public. She has met with Thomas O. Muldoon, president of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau; Meryl Levitz, CEO of Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.; William Moore, CEO of the Independence Visitor Center Corp.; and Bernard Guet, president of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. She said she has also met with "many, many more people with an interest in this park."

"If we are to cooperate, we must also communicate. That's why I began my tenure as superintendent by talking to as many partners as humanly possible," said Bomar. "By understanding our partners' needs, but actively listening to what is important, we foster a spirit of working together, of collaboration toward a common goal."

The city, along with tourist groups like those Bomar mentioned, will also have a role in promoting the historic monuments, through brochures, Web marketing and TV advertising.

 

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