Canceled: 'Francis Fields' campground plan

The area off Reservoir Drive between 33rd Street and the Schuylkill, with Laurel Hill Mansion in the background. (CHARLES FOX/Staff Photographer)

There will be no papal campground after all.

A day after word circulated that an expensive campground for papal pilgrims would be constructed in Fairmount Park, the plan was scrapped.

"Francis Fields" was to be a multi-acre swath of RV and camping grounds, with restrooms, showers, and food vendors in the eastern part of Fairmount Park. It was to be capable of accommodating 16,000 people for $199 per camper - with costs for tents, cars, and RVs ranging from $99 to $999.

As of Thursday, there was no sign of a campground going up in the park.

On Friday, ESM Productions, which was handling the event planning for the campground, said it was no more, due to a lack of interest and the fact that "plenty of accommodations" are still available in Philadelphia, it said in a statement.

Hotels are at just 70 percent occupancy two weeks ahead of Pope Francis' visit, with about 3,000 rooms available.

Prices are also dropping, with some Center City hotel rooms going for rates lower than they would during a large citywide convention, said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.

City officials had said for months they were open to allowing camping in Fairmount Park, which would have been a first, given the city's no-camping ordinance. World Meeting of Families organizers, however, never formally announced any plans to take advantage of the approval.

Rather, they quietly posted information about the campground on the World Meeting of Families website, somewhat hidden at the bottom of a "Places to Stay" tab. Multiple news stories appeared about the campground this past week after reporters discovered the link.

Almost as soon as stories appeared, the camp was canceled.

"We made the decision to cancel it based on, there really wasn't the interest that we thought there might be," ESM owner Scott Mirkin said.

Mirkin said the campground plan was killed before a large amount of work had been done to get the site prepared.

"There was some very preliminary planning. No installation or any equipment or any of those things have been put into place," Mirkin said.

Grose said Friday he was relieved to see the kibosh put on the campground.

"I'm very pleased to see others saw it wasn't a good idea and decided not to allow it," he said. "It's more economical to stay in a hotel than to pay $199 a person. You're much more comfortable in a hotel. You have much better service."

Grose said that given how quickly plans were announced and then canceled, he didn't have time to raise a fuss - but would have.

"I'm not a fan of people camping, for obvious reasons, but fundamentally, I also think it's wrong from a sanitary standpoint - I have visions of church-lady Woodstock," he said.

Friday afternoon Grose joined Mayor Nutter for a parade of sorts down 17th Street in Center City with stops at four hotels, all of which have vacancies for the papal weekend.

Nutter stopped at the Radisson Blu (average rate for papal weekend $268 to $350 per night); the Latham Hotel ($459), the Hotel Palomar ($300) and the Sofitel ($225 to $350). At each hotel, staff greeted him waving Vatican flags and holding high "Welcome Pope Francis" posters, chanting, "I'll be there!"

As Nutter made his way down 17th, he shook hands with a cabdriver who pulled over to say hello. "Make sure you help folks get up to see the pope," Nutter said. He told one young woman stopped at a red light on an Indego bike, "You can take that to see Pope Francis."

News cameras and VisitPHL film crews captured each moment.

The hotel industry is offering incentives to guests to book - anyone who reserves a room Sept. 25 to 27 will get two free tickets to the Liberty Observation Deck to open in November atop One Liberty Place.

Some hotels are offering their own bonuses. The Hilton is giving out SEPTA passes and "pope packs," complete with Philadelphia-favorite snacks for pilgrims, Grose said.

Nutter noted that now that all of the tickets for the papal appearances have been distributed - tickets for the papal Mass went in 30 seconds - visitors who didn't otherwise plan to come may be looking for rooms.

"Folks are in an even better position to make decisions from a lodging standpoint," he said. "Now, folks know, I have a ticket - now, I need a hotel room."

As for the campgrounds, Nutter said the city had no role in the cancellation and declined to speculate on why interest wasn't higher.

"I have never really been camping before," he said. "I'm from West Philly. I don't know anything about that."


jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso

Inquirer staff writer Maria Panaritis contributed to this article.