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Independence Park is ‘woefully behind’ for 2026 and in ‘grave need of resources,’ stakeholders say

More than 30 institutions in Philly's historic district have formed United for Independence, a group to advocate for increased funding and attention to Independence National Historical Park.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Independence Hall in Philadelphia.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

I would like to thank the good people of Philadelphia for not calling for my excommunication when I reluctantly complimented Boston’s Freedom Trail — a 2.5-mile path embedded in the sidewalk that connects Beantown’s sites — in a column last month.

I still feel weird about it but as it turns out, I am not alone.

Dozens of people reached out to say that, like me, they’ve wondered why Philly doesn’t have its own version of the Freedom Trail, and I heard from others who recalled prior attempts to get one established.

I learned there’s a term for using physical elements like a trail to help people connect sites and navigate from one place to another. It’s called wayfinding and almost everyone admits, we’re pretty bad at it in Philadelphia.

Any attempts to bring wayfinding to Philly’s district must, by necessity, involve Independence National Historical Park, but when the park isn’t even funded to operate in an optimal way now, how can wayfinding — or any other improvements — be implemented before the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026?

That’s the point Kathryn Ott Lovell, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Visitor Center Corporation, which runs the Independence Visitor Center in cooperation with the National Park Service, and Jonathan Burton, director of development for Independence Historical Trust, the philanthropic partner of Independence National Historical Park, wanted to drive home when I met with them last week.

“Independence [Park] is in grave need of resources,” Ott Lovell said. “We talk as a country about democracy being under attack, but that’s theoretical. This is physically the birthplace of democracy and it’s not being cared for in the best way that it can be.”

‘Woefully behind for 2026′

Independence Park’s $27 million budget has been relatively stagnant for a decade, Burton said, and buildings across the space remain closed or are operating with reduced hours. And while $85 million is going to repairs this year, that’s less than half of the park’s $199 million backlog of deferred maintenance.

To raise awareness of the park’s needs, an advocacy group called United for Independence was recently formed by the District Partners, a coalition of more than 30 institutions, museums, and sites.

The partners began meeting last fall, after Ott Lovell, the former director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, took the reins at the Visitor Center and Steven Sims was named Independence Park’s new superintendent.

U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Pa.), who picked up the park and Old City in a redistricting last year, said there’s now “a much better working relationship between all stakeholder groups and leadership of Independence National Historical Park.”

Boyle told me he was “frankly concerned” to learn that preparation for the semiquincentennial at Independence Park is “woefully behind for 2026.” He pointed to the fact that there are no plans to open Declaration House, the building reconstructed for the bicentennial on the site where the Declaration of Independence was written. It has been closed since 2018.

“I cannot believe right now there’s no plan for Declaration House — literally where the committee wrote the Declaration of Independence — to be open on the Fourth of July for 2026,” Boyle said. “That is frankly an embarrassment.”

Millions of visitors

Established in 1948, Independence National Historical Park covers 54 acres in Center City and Old City and counts Independence Hall, Congress Hall, and the Liberty Bell among its many sites.

Sims — who also oversees the Edgar Allan Poe National Site, the Gloria Dei Church National Site, and the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philly — is unflappably optimistic about Independence Park and 2026, even as those around him sound warning bells. When I asked if the park was well-funded, Sims said, “I think anybody would accept more [money].”

“What I will say is we have sufficient funding to operate all four parks for Philadelphia,” he told me. “That doesn’t mean everybody will be happy with how we operate them … That’s where partnerships really come in handy.”

Sims said he’s honored the District Partners have formed United for Independence to advocate for the park.

“It demonstrates how much they care about these resources and our relationship,” he said.

For the District Partners, a thriving Independence Park is about self-preservation too. Visitors who go to the park, which is the most-visited attraction in Philly, often head to other museums and sites in the area.

Burton said the 2.7 million people who visited Independence Park in 2022 added an estimated $178 million to the regional economy and, according to the National Park Service, the park’s annual impact on the local economy is $228 million.

“If the park thrives, we thrive. If the park doesn’t do well, we don’t do well,” Ott Lovell said.

Prior to the pandemic, the park had about 4.5 million visitors annually. Last year, it was just over 3 million.

Closed or reduced hours

Among Ott Lovell’s and Burton’s concerns is that the recently-rehabbed Second Bank of the United States, which houses an impressive portrait gallery and was open three days a week last summer, will not open this season, aside from special events and holiday weekends. Sims said he doesn’t have the staff to keep it open otherwise.

The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall were open last summer until 7 p.m., but this year, both sites will close at 5 p.m.

While Independence National Historical Park’s budget wasn’t technically cut this year, there was a $2 million salary increase mandated for the park’s 195 staffers, so the park had to “find that money within their budget by cutting other things,” Ott Lovell said.

“It’s been shocking to me, as someone who ran a parks and rec system, to see how challenged the leadership is at Independence and the hard decisions that they have to make,” she said.

Then there are the buildings within Independence Park that have been closed for years with no timeline for reopening, like the Declaration House, the Dolley Todd House, and the Bishop White House, all of which remain on the National Park Service’s ”Places To Go” website for Independence Park.

‘It’s not just about the next 24 months’

Philanthropic dollars raised by Independence Historical Trust amounted to $1.2 million last year, but it’s not enough. The park needs a budget increase of at least $10 million annually to manage and program the park at optimal levels, Ott Lovell estimated.

“We’re agnostic about where the money comes from,” she said. “That is up to our elected officials to hash that out.”

Boyle said he’s lobbied Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to prioritize Independence Park and dedicate more resources to it and said she’s pointed out, in turn, that the National Park Service needs more funding from Congress.

“I agree and it’s something I’ve been working on,” Boyle said. “Using the 250th anniversary of the country as an opportunity to secure greater funding is a priority for me. And it’s not just about the next 24 months, it’s about the next 24 years.”

Ott Lovell said she’d like to see the city and state step up too. Independence Hall — a UNESCO World Heritage site — is actually owned by Philadelphia and operated by the National Park Service through an agreement, but it receives no money from the city (ditto for the Liberty Bell).

Along with increased funding, United for Independence is advocating for more Philadelphians to frequent Independence Park and see it as their national park and not just a place for tourists.

“It’s a shame that we as Philadelphians don’t feel this deep connection to this park,” Ott Lovell said. “This idea of democracy was an experiment and that experiment is still unfolding. We’re all part of that and it’s never been more important for people to understand what their role is in helping that great experiment to continue to unfold.”

The past and the future

On Friday, the District Partners will hold its first United for Independence Day of Service, which Subaru of America is sponsoring with a $10,000 donation. More than 100 staffers from museums and institutions in the district will spend the day on Independence Mall picking up litter, mulching, planting flowers, and doing maintenance. Organizers hope it will become a reoccurring event that will expand to include city residents.

It’s good United for Independence was created to draw awareness to the needs of Independence National Historical Park and to advocate for more funding, but I can’t help but think that like Jalen Hurts donating $200,000 so that 10 Philly schools could buy air conditioners, it’s pretty sad it needed to happen at all.

Our governments should recognize the importance of providing non-sweltering places for children to learn and of preserving and promoting the hallowed ground where our nation and democracy were birthed. We must invest in our future and in our past, for they remain, as always, inextricably linked, especially as the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence approaches.

I haven’t lost hope for Philly to get its own version of the Freedom Trail, but I now understand why we don’t have one yet — because Independence Park can’t properly fund what already exists, let alone undertake new projects.

As self-evident truths go, that’s a tough one to swallow.