Report: Hotel business blessed by papal visit, while eateries suffered

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Pope Francis arrives at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. (DAVID SWANSON/Staff Photographer)

Last weekend's visit by Pope Francis was good for hotels, but terrible for restaurants and shops closest to the Center City papal events, according to a survey of businesses the City Controller's Office released Tuesday.

"Several restaurants stated they were the hardest-hit because they stocked up on supplies over the course of the week, only to find that the demand never materialized," Controller Alan Butkovitz said in a statement he released along with the survey.

In the city, 19 restaurants each reported business was off by 45 percent compared with a typical weekend. Fifteen retailers said they rang up just 21 percent of typical weekend receipts.

Meanwhile, hotels reported an 88 percent occupancy rate on average, typical for a solid weekend, according to the controller's survey.

The Francis Festival grounds, where the pontiff spoke and celebrated a public Mass, included the areas around Independence Mall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Preliminary reports from Pennsylvania counties outside the city suggested a similar story. Hotels and some tourist sites reported a robust weekend, but for eateries and other merchants, things were less prosperous.

Hotels in Montgomery County reported an 80 percent occupancy rate, said Mike Bowman, president of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board.

Papal pilgrims did travel beyond Center City to see certain attractions. The Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel in Bensalem, for instance, had about 4,000 visitors last weekend, said Sister Pat Downs, the director. The pontiff mentioned the site in one of his speeches.

"My feeling was that everyone was happy to be there," Downs said. "It was just a very peaceful, wonderful experience."

Valley Forge National Historical Park received more than 1,000 visitors on Friday afternoon. It had planned programming that allowed children to play recruits in George Washington's army, Bowman said.

But the tourism bump outside the city apparently did not go beyond religious sites and nationally famous locations such as Valley Forge. Delaware County, for example, did not see a tourism increase over the weekend, County Council Member John P. McBlain said.

Massimo Spatola went into the papal weekend thinking his restaurant, Spatola's Pizza, would benefit greatly from its position directly across the street from the busy Regional Rail station in Paoli. It was one of the 18 Regional Rail stations transporting papal pilgrims to and from Center City.

"They [papal weekend planners] had us believe there was going to be thousands of cars around the Paoli area, and it was a ghost town," Spatola said.

Uber had thousands of drivers available in Philadelphia and reported high demand for handicapped accessible vehicles, but disappointing demand overall.

"It was actually slower than expected," spokesman Taylor Bennett said. "Demand was down."

The pontiff's visit capped the World Meeting of Families. The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau had projected the papal weekend would provide a $417.8 million windfall for the city.

Butkovitz, in his statement, said the World Meeting had put the economic boost even higher, at $500 million.

"The responses we received from businesses, especially restaurants and retailers," are that these figures may not have been reached, Butkovitz said.

Mayor Nutter on Monday dismissed concerns expressed by city businesses about the weekend's economic effect, stressing instead the role the papal visit played in raising the city's profile.

brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973 @ByChrisBrennan