It was a sweet coincidence.
Just after my column was posted Thursday afternoon on Philly.com reporting that unhappy tourists were not able to get close to the Liberty Bell, the City Representative’s Office tweeted out word that money had been found to open the Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall.
A post-Christmas miracle.
I believe in Santa, but this wasn’t his doing. Who was the Good Samaritan?
As my column quickly reported, it was Visit Philly, the city’s tourism and marketing corporation, that rode to the rescue.
Here’s how it came about:
A small Visit Philly crisis-management team had met Saturday to grapple with the disaster of the partial government shutdown. Christmas week is the second busiest of the year for the historic district, following only July Fourth. Visit Philly wanted to get word out to the world that many Philly attractions would be open, despite the shutdown.
“We didn’t want people to cancel or delay their trips,” in many cases planned long in advance, I was told by Jeff Guaracino, who took over Visit Philly in October from longtime president Meryl Levitz, who retired.
“I sent an email to the board,” says Guaracino, and board member Wendy Hamilton responded by noting that New York state was paying the federal government to keep open the Statue of Liberty, which is important to New York City tourism.
That lit a lightbulb over Guaracino’s head. If Noo Yawk could do it, why couldn’t Philly? He needed to know three things: 1) Could a similar arrangement be made? 2) What would it cost? 3) How soon could the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall be reopened?
For answers, he turned to Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park.
Yes, a similar arrangement could be made, she told him, after a contract was drawn up and the money wired to the National Park Service.
The cost would be $75,000 to open everything through the end of the year.
Guaracino swallowed hard. That’s a big number. How about opening just the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, rather than the whole park? MacLeod went back to her spreadsheet and came up with $32,000. That would cover staff salaries, utilities, and a standard overhead fee of 19 percent. The costs were broken down “to the penny,” Guaracino says, adding that MacLeod helped out even though she was not being paid.
The bell and hall could not be opened before Friday morning because the contract had to be signed and union employees require 24 hours' notice to be sent back to work.
Given that we are dealing with bureaucracies, this information was assembled in record time.
Guaracino next got on the horn with Visit Philly board chairman Manny Stamatakis and then Mayor Jim Kenney. Both flashed a green light — and why not? About 25,000 visitors were expected over the weekend, and that would equal a lot of happy people cozying up to the Liberty Bell.
So the bell and the hall reopened Friday morning and were to be open from 9 to 5 through Sunday. After that?
“We wanted to get through one of the busiest tourism weeks for us,” says Guaracino, who adds that tourism falls off a cliff in January. While Visit Philly could pull $32,000 out of a hat, Guaracino wouldn’t make an open-ended commitment to keep the landmarks open.
The lesson? It all got done in a week, proving that governance doesn’t always have to be equal parts incompetence and anguish.