Thursday, May 28, 2015

Historical site closures disappoint Philadelphia tourists

Gallery: Government shutdown

Harrison and Shanna Blizzard's honeymoon got off to a disappointing start.

The Prince Edward Island couple's plans to visit the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall were thwarted by the federal government shutdown that began at midnight over the bruising battle of funding of the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.

"It is kind of frustrating," Harrison Blizzard said. The honeymoon is the couple's first trip to Philadelphia, and they wanted to see the places "where America became America," he said this morning at Independence Mall.

"I wanted to learn the history," Blizzard said.

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  • History will have to wait.

    Some of the Philadelphia region's key tourism draws and historical sites are closed this morning as the result of the the partial federal government shutdown, disappointing tourists from around the country as well as internationally.

    All National Park Service parks, visitor centers and other facilities across the country will remain closed until the federal-spending fight is resolved.

    At Independence Mall, gates surrounded the entrance to the Liberty Bell, but walkways and grassy areas at the park remained open to pedestrians.

    "We are an urban park," spokeswoman Jane Cowley said.

    In the Philadelphia region, the shutdown impacts sites such as the bell, Independence Hall and Valley Forge National Historical Park. The shutdown, which went into effect at 12:01 a.m. today after President Obama and leaders in Congress failed to agree on a spending plan, is the first in nearly two decades.

    Road were closed this morning at Valley Forge. A sign was posted at the front gate informing the parked was locked as a result of the shutdown. Bike trails were also closed.

    Jeannine Norris, 49, of Upper Providence came to Valley Forge National Park for a run with her dog, Shelby, and was turned away. Even though she knew of other closures, she expected the trails would be open.

    "It is a terrible shame the Republicans and Democrats couldn't come together," she said. "We have to stop being a country with two parties and start acting as one nation."

    She blames the GOP for the shutdown.  So does Steve Hranilovich, 50, of Phoenixville, who was turned away from using the bike path for his morning commute/workout.  A Democrat, he does not expect the shutdown to last long and feels it was worth shutting down to make a point.

    "Obamacare is not going to be sacrificed so easily," he said

    Depending on its length, the closures could hit tourism in the region hard. Last year, more than 3.5 million people visited Independence National Historical Park, according to park service data. More than 300,000 of those visitors came in October.

    Valley Forge saw more than 1.4 million visitors last year, including more than 107,000 in October.

    Special events at national park sites are canceled during the shutdown, and permits for such events are being rescinded. At Gettysburg National Military Park, a planned Ku Klux Klan rally at the battlefield will no longer take place.

    During the last government shutdown, which lasted from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996, the closure of national park service sites resulted in a loss of 7 million visitors and their tourism revenue to local communities, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

    The National Constitution Center, meanwhile, is also located on Independence Mall but is a private, non-profit institution. The center was reminding visitors on its website and social media accounts that it is open during the shutdown. Other tourist sites not dependent on the federal government, such as The Betsy Ross House, Franklin Square, and the Franklin Institute, which houses the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, also remain open.

    Additional effects of the shutdown in the Philadelphia area include the furloughing of tens of thousands of federal workers, including civilian military employees and delays in getting loans for first-time home buyers and low-to-moderate income borrowers.

    Back at Independence Mall, Cowley said most workers would be off the job, but some law enforcement personnel would remain on-duty to keep the area secure. 

    The historical site is one of the largest draws in the region, and tour groups continued to arrive this morning, despite the locked buildings. Tourists lined up to peer at the bell through the window, snapped photos from behind the glass and gazed at Independence Hall from across the street.

    Some visitors to the park who hadn't been following the news of a potential shutdown got an unpleasant surprise when they arrived at the sites.

    Kyle Runner and two friends boarded a bus in New York City at 5:30 a.m., intending to spend a free day visiting historical sites in Philadelphia. They found out on board that that wasn't going to happen.

    "We're just taking pictures of all the signs saying everything's closed," Runner said.

    Others were prepared for a possible shutdown -- but unable to change their plans.

    "We're on a schedule. This was our day in Philadelphia," said Jim Barnhart, a Kansas man on a multi-week trip through the Eastern United States with his wife, Barbara, for their 50th wedding anniversary.

    "It's very disappointing when you come clear from Kansas," Barbara Barnhart said.

    She said she didn't think leaders in Washington would go through with the shutdown, but her husband wasn't surprised.

    "There has been so much conflict between the president and the Republican Party since he got into office," Jim Barnhart said.

    The closures were forcing tourists to make adjustments to their plans.

    "I'm just going to walk around and see what I can," Diane Mueller, visiting from Wisconsin, said outside the Liberty Bell. She said she didn't realize the park would be affected by a shutdown, and was planning to see the Rocky statue outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    That's also where the Blizzards, the couple on their honeymoon, were headed.

    "Shanna's a Rocky fan," Harrison Blizzard said. "At least that's open."


    Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or ebabay@philly.com. Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

    Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443 or BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.

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