The King Day National Bell Ceremony is not going to happen at the Liberty Bell Center this year, another casualty of the federal shutdown.
“It’s the first time we ever missed the ceremony in 36 years,” said Dr. William Tucker, chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence Inc., which sponsors the yearly ceremony, and widower of the ceremony’s founder, C. Delores Tucker, a civil rights activist who became Pennsylvania’s secretary of state and joined King’s late widow, Coretta Scott King, in helping persuade President Ronald Reagan to sign legislation authorizing the memorial bell-ring.
With the National Park Service stopped, the Independence Historic Trust made an appeal to local corporations and other groups to raise nearly $40,000, in $5,000 to $10,000 increments, to pay staff to reopen Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell for tourists on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, so tourist visits and scheduled events could continue, park and corporate sources told the Inquirer.
Wawa, the Eagles, the Philadelphia Foundation, and developer Tom Scannapieco were among the corporate and nonprofit donors who responded this week.
But they weren’t enough by themselves, so the park will stay dark. locking out the National Bell Ceremony, which in past years has honored political and spiritual leaders, ranging from Archbishop Charles Chaput to two daughters of Malcolm X, Ilyasah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz.
Instead, this year’s honoree, Cathy Hughes, founder and chairperson of TV One Cable Television, will ring a bell at the 201 Hotel, at 17th and Race Streets, before the association’s annual luncheon at noon Monday. Hughes will be honored alongside Laborers union leader Sam Staten and Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams, said association secretary Dr. Ethel Partridge. Tax records show luncheon ticket purchases cover the cost of the luncheon plus a small summer tutoring program, College for Teens.
Park supporters are frustrated about the shutdown over the long holiday weekend, after efforts to find private sponsors to pay staff ran out of time.
“If we could find four corporations to each give $10,000, it could be accomplished. If we raise more, we can remain open for additional days,” according to an appeal received by area employers and charities from the historic trust last week. But not enough responded in time to get the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall back up.
“In addition to the lack of funding, this weekend’s weather was taken into consideration, as well as the short notice” to get federal workers back from furlough, said Joyce Walker, deputy director of the trust.
Her group said staffing costs for the bell and hall, the park’s most popular attractions, run from $11,000 to $14,000 a day, varying with events and holiday requirements.
There may be higher-profile public servants who aren’t getting paid -- members of the Coast Guard struggling to keep waterways safe in freezing weather, the Internal Revenue Service delaying tax refund checks, among others -- but Philadelphia is among the cities most dependent on government-backed historic tourism to keep its restaurants and hotels busy and city tax coffers full.
It’s different in that other historic center, Boston, where civic groups mobilized, in some cases, long before the National Park Service arrived in its brick and stone Colonial district, and continue to fund and oversee historic buildings and programs.
As a result, while the park service warns on its website that “National Park Service facilities and services in Boston are closed,” major attractions in that city’s historic area remain open -- including the Paul Revere House, the USS Constitution, and the Old North Church, among others.
The National Constitution Center and the Independence Visitors Center, though located in the park on Independence Mall, have a similar private status in Philadelphia and remain open despite the federal shutdown. So does the Betsy Ross House, which is owned by the City of Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, lines of disappointed tourists formed outside the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall on Dec. 21 after unpaid park service staff closed the attractions. Visit Philly, the promotion group funded from the city’s hotel tax, donated $33,000 to keep the park attractions open on top tourist days during the busy weekend before New Year’s.
But such spending “is not sustainable for nonprofits, obviously,” said the trust’s Walker. She said her group and its partners “are preparing to fund-raise for the upcoming Presidents' Day weekend.” Maybe with more time supporters can bring in more donors.
Tourism dips in the weeks after New Year’s, but last year visitors to the Liberty Bell rose from around 70,000 in January to over 100,000 in February, which includes Presidents' Day weekend, according to park service data.
A 2017 report by the National Park Service said that visitors to Independence Park spent nearly $300 million in the region, supporting more than 4,000 jobs -- and that each day the park is closed costs businesses and the city’s tax coffers more than $1 million.