The economic juggernaut that is Independence National Historical Park

With summer in full swing, Independence National Historical Park is gearing up for more visitors, who descended on the park’s more than 20 houses and buildings in record numbers last year, the most since the Constitution’s 200th anniversary in 1987.

Independence National Park had 5.1 million visitors, a healthy 17 percent jump over 2015, with the biggest crowds at the Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Old City Hall, and the Visitor Center at Sixth and Market.

Those crowds, which tend to be highest over the summer, show that the park had a ripple effect in turning the surrounding area into something of an economic powerhouse. Visitors spent $296.3 million in the communities around the park. That spending supported 4,600 jobs with an overall $439.6 million benefit to the local economy, said Gina Gilliam, acting deputy superintendent and public affairs officer of Independence National Historical Park.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and most national parks saw a surge in visitors. And Independence National Park certainly got a boost from the Democratic National Convention and Hillary Clinton’s big rally before the presidential election. Also, more schoolchildren went to the park last year.

Children take part in a mock Revolutionary muster hosted by actors from historic Philadelphia in a park behind the American Philosophical Society. (CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer)

A program started by President Barack Obama, and continuing this year, gives fourth graders and their families free admission to the national parks. Students must register and get a pass online. “We had more reservations from school groups. I think the Every Kid in a Park initiative had an effect,” said Patrick W. Suddath, acting superintendent of Independence National Park.

Beyond the park, the city and region were frequented by 42 million visitors in 2016. Philadelphia’s broader historic area encompasses the original boundary map from the Delaware River to Seventh Street, and from Vine to Lombard Streets. It includes a waterfront, hotels, sidewalk cafés and restaurants, and places to climb a ship mast, ride a carousel, play miniature golf, roller-skate, and rock in a hammock at Spruce Street Harbor Park, according to Visit Philadelphia, a group that promotes tourism.

“In other words, you can stay longer in it,” said Meryl Levitz, CEO of Visit Philadelphia, noting that 40 percent of Philadelphia visitors are repeat. “If you don’t see the bell and the hall the first morning that you are there, it’s OK because you’re staying overnight, and you have another crack at it.”

Birthplace of the American financial system

Acting Independence National Historical Park Superintendent Patrick W. Suddath outside the First Bank of the United States. The park wants to raise money to reopen the bank to the public. (CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer)

Philadelphia does a good job of telling the story of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution. Indeed, the latest addition, the $120 million Museum of the American Revolution, which opened April 19, displays the best of 3,000-plus artifacts, including Washington’s tent and battle flag. Its immersive video, elaborate digital displays, and life-size dioramas focus on the more proletarian aspects of the Revolutionary War.

But the city’s importance as a hub of commerce and finance is harder to find.

“We don’t tell the story of money in Philadelphia, and yet the financial system was created here,” says Levitz.

The First Bank of the United States, the marble-columned Greek Revival-style building at Third and Chestnut, where Alexander Hamilton founded the first national bank and a common monetary system, has fallen into disrepair and is not open to the public.

A priority of Suddath’s is to rehabilitate and reopen the First Bank, the first federal building. “It’s a wonderful building with a wonderful story,” he said. “It’s a treasure.”

Friends of Independence Park, a nonprofit group, is completing a feasibility study with a proposal and cost estimate for restoring the First Bank to its original grandeur in 1797. If approved by the National Park Service, “we’ll be off and running” to raise the money, said Thomas Caramanico, chairman of the committee spearheading the effort.

The project is expected to cost $27 million, with about $15 million of that to restore the building.

“We’re pretty confident we can raise the money,” Caramanico said. “We have tentative commitments from some fairly sizable donors.” The Friends group has requested a state grant. The National Park Service may get some funds to renovate through its regular budget.

Another park building with ties to commerce is the Second Bank of the United States at 420 Chestnut, which opened in 1816 and houses a gallery of portraits of George and Martha Washington and others. The Merchants’ Exchange at Third and Walnut is the nation’s oldest stock exchange building. The lobby is open to the public.

Nearby, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia is part of the U.S. central banking system created in 1913. The U.S. Philadelphia Mint at 151 N. Independence Mall is at its fourth location since Ye Olde Mint began striking U.S. coins in 1792.

While the First Bank needs a redo, some other park buildings are not open full time. “We have to put our staffing where it counts,” the superintendent said.

Beyond the Bell

There are also gems in Independence Park off the beaten track or that don’t get as much traffic. They include the Portrait Gallery at the Second Bank, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, and an exhibit called “The Fragments” at 318 Market St where the side of the building is open, exposing the archaeology found in the walls. “It’s a wonderful picture into what 18th-century life looked like,” Suddath said.

Park staff have a couple of tips for visitors. Independence Hall requires a timed ticket to enter, and you should try to reserve in advance. The tickets are free, but there is a $1.50 service fee on the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/inde. Tickets also are available, on a first-come basis, starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Visitor Center on the day of the visit. “As we hit our busy season, it’s rare that the tickets aren’t gone for the entire day by 10 a.m., 11 a.m. at the latest,” he said.

The other advice is if you are unable to snag a ticket to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and signed, you can still go to Independence Square (after going through airport-like security screening) and tour Old City Hall, Congress Hall, and the Great Essentials exhibit in the West Wing of Independence Hall. You don’t need a ticket to go through the security line.

The attraction of Philly

A worker with Historic Philadelphia drags a cart filled with Revolutionary War-style paraphernalia onto Chestnut Street. (CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer)

With recent acts of terrorism abroad, and talk of a travel ban at home, Philadelphia has seen “a resurgence in interest in coming back to where it all started,” Levitz said. “Philly seems to do better than most destinations when there is a recession or there’s trouble because we are within a five-hour drive of a quarter of the country’s population, so people don’t  have to get on a plane if they don’t want to. We are accessible. We are affordable.”

At the same time that national parks are seeing record-breaking attendance, President Trump has proposed cutting the Department of Interior budget, including 6.4 percent fewer full-time equivalent employees for the National Park Service. Whether that happens or not, Friends of Independence Park is ready to help. “Our job is to raise money for things that the park service can’t afford,” said Caramanico.

“It’s not easy, don’t get me wrong. I tend to be positive. ‘OK, here’s a challenge. Let’s go figure out what to do now.’ Things like the First Bank,” he said, “We’re all about doing that.”