Government shutdown cancels annual Liberty Bell MLK ceremony

 Tourists gather around the Liberty Bell on Independence Mall. (Matt Rourke/AP, file)

Tourists gather around the Liberty Bell on Independence Mall. (Matt Rourke/AP, file)

There have been moments in the last four weeks of the government shutdown when regular citizens and nongovernmental organization have stepped in to help national parks. Businesses have helped pick up trash, and a $32,000 contribution from Visit Philadelphia kept Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell staffed during the busy tourism days between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

But that won’t be happening during the long Martin Luther King Day weekend, interrupting a 36-year tradition of a Liberty Bell for a ceremony honoring the slain civil rights leader

Sponsored by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence, the symbolic bell ringing usually attracts up to 500 people, including elected officials and the park service superintendent.

Not this year. The association created a last-minute workaround, moving its ceremony into a nearby hotel where a luncheon is planned. The city’s fire department will provide a substitute bell.

Association president and CEO William Tucker held out hope for the Liberty Bell gathering until Thursday when it was definitely determined that the site would remain shuttered.

Nevertheless, he remains optimistic.

“I think cooler heads and cooler hearts will soon prevail, and soon the Liberty Bell and all the park services will be reopened to the public,” said Tucker.

The Independence National Historical Park has a support organization, Independence Historical Trust (formerly Friends of Independence National Historical Park), which began lining up donors to subsidize reopening the park and its buildings for the MLK weekend. Park services cost – by a conservative estimate – more than $10,000 a day.

But January is the least popular month for visitors in the park, and the forecast was calling for sloppy wintry weather.

The trust ultimately decided to keep its fundraising powder dry for better circumstances.

“We took it all together and thought, well, if we were able to raise funds, let’s use it at a time when more visitors are able to benefit from those and have our buildings open,” said deputy director Joyce Walker.

That sentiment is shared by Visit Philadelphia, which kept the park open around the holidays mostly because many visitors had already made travel plans before the shutdown began.

Should the shutdown last another month, Visit Philly and the Historical Trust may tap their resources to open the park for Presidents Day weekend.

Disclosure: WHYY President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Marrazzo serves as Chair of the Independence National Historical Park Trust.

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