Empty tables, deserted streets for pope’s Philly visit
Philadelphia — One restaurant owner spent $7,500 on food she couldn’t sell. A smoothie shop’s business was down more than 50 percent.
Even as hundreds of thousands of people thronged the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sunday for Mass with Pope Francis, his weekend visit to Philadelphia apparently failed to deliver the economic boon predicted by organizers.
Some businesses closed early, some downtown hotel rooms went unfilled and normally bustling city streets were deserted over the weekend as residents either stayed home or left town, and pilgrims kept their wallets in their pockets.
Celebrity chef Marc Vetri, whose eponymous restaurant is a fine-dining landmark, took to Facebook to rail against city leaders who he said “decided to roll out the red carpet for everyone making the pilgrimage, and roll us up in the carpet to place in storage until Monday.” He said he was “haunted by the empty streets and shuttered windows.”
One of Vetri’s smaller pizzerias, at least, was enjoying a brisk business as people were leaving after Mass and the global gathering ended; the pizzeria near a security checkpoint was packed with an hour wait for a table. And at an outside tent, it was doing a brisk business selling pizza by the slice, pies, and drinks.
At Midtown III restaurant, co-owner Vivian Tafuri rented a refrigerated truck, filled it with $7,500 worth of food and spent another $1,000 on a parking space.
“It’s all wasted,” Tafuri fumed Sunday. “All the time our mayor was saying a million and a half people, and nothing. Wasted.”
Liz Furey, a bartender at the restaurant, said the pope’s visit chased away the regulars.
“The people who are visiting are having a good time at the parkway. But as far as the local businesses were concerned, what we were promised didn’t happen at all,” Furey said.
The World Meeting of Families, the Vatican-sponsored conference that drew Francis to Philadelphia, had estimated 1.5 million people would show up for the pope’s weekend visit, with 10,000 staying overnight and business sales of $390 million.
Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive of Visit Philadelphia, the main tourism marketing agency, acknowledged Sunday that many shops and restaurants were hurting for business. Pilgrims went to Philadelphia to “be in the aura of the pope,” not to spend a lot of money, she said.
“To look at a grassroots spiritual event in terms of immediate economic benefit is asking too much of it,” she said.
City officials who for months had issued dire warnings about long walks and security lines to reach Pope Francis’ events recalibrated their message last month amid fears they were scaring people away, launching an “I’ll be There” campaign as well as the OpenInPhl hashtag for city businesses.
But their efforts came too little, too late for some merchants.
With sales down more than 50 percent, Robek’s, a juice and smoothie shop, decided to close early Sunday.
Manager Dave Deener blamed the intense security, including concrete barriers and a vehicle checkpoint near the entrance. National Guard troops and a police officer sat on folding chairs nearby.
“It’s awful. Everybody got scared off because of the security detail,” he said.
Philly Cupcake went all out for Pope Francis’ visit, making papal and Jesus cupcakes and plastering the windows with his picture. One window even had a big sign showing the pontiff holding a cupcake as if it were a communion wafer.
“A lot of people take pictures with it, but they don’t come in,” said store associate Silvia Pulido.
The impact of the pope’s visit on business was especially apparent Saturday night.
Some Center City hotel rooms went unfilled — though officials said it was a near sell-out — and tables could be had at some of the city’s trendiest restaurants. On normally bustling South Street, bars, restaurants, sneaker stores and smoke shops — usually filled on weekends with city residents, suburban gawkers and tourists — were empty.
Stephen Starr, one of the city’s most prominent restaurateurs with about 20 eateries, told The Philadelphia Inquirer the pope’s visit “affected business worse that Hurricane Sandy.”
Mayor Michael Nutter on Sunday thanked the businesses that stayed open and proclaimed the papal visit a success.
“Estimates are estimates. I think there was no perfect way to know how many people were going to come, but our job in city government was try to be as prepared as possible,” he told WPVI-TV.
Levitz, the tourism executive, is taking a long view of things.
The city’s role was to make the pilgrims’ stay as comfortable and pleasant as possible and encourage them to come back, Levitz said, adding that saturation media coverage of the pope’s visit has been a marketing boon for the nation’s fifth-largest city.
“This is a transcendent event for Philadelphia and the region and it’s up to all of us to make it generate the kind of economic benefit that people are looking for.”