The Mall, Washington’s oft-trampled symbol of democracy and its most-visited national park, heads into the summer tourist season with no Fourth of July concert, fewer Park Police officers and a whole lot of uncollected trash — all results of the spending cuts coursing through parks, museums and other cultural destinations that people come to see in the capital city.
The cuts may not be drastic, but they’re troubling to tourists, advocates for the arts and other critics of the budget impasse in Congress that put the across-the-board reductions known as sequestration in place two months ago.
“The leisure traveler is a very emotional traveler,” said John Stachnik, president of Chicago-based Mayflower Tours, which books eight-day trips to the D.C. area. “They’re skittish.” Potential visitors are expressing reservations about visiting Washington this summer, he said. “If an exhibit in the Smithsonian is closing, the only thing they remember is: The Smithsonian is closing.”
The Smithsonian shuttered three exhibit areas Wednesday, in the National Museum of African Art, the Smithsonian Castle and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. All were victims of a scaled-back security contract.
The District’s most high-profile cut took effect as soon as sequestration took an $85 billion hatchet to the government: the cancellation of White House tours because of reduced Secret Service staffing. With no budget deficit deal between Republicans and Democrats on the table, no one can say when the public will get inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. again.
Only 3 percent of the 18 million visitors to Washington every year go on a White House tour, because they must be arranged well in advance with members of Congress. But the visitor experience is facing other indignities.
The National Archives — home of the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence — has slashed evening hours. The National Arboretum will close to the public Tuesday through Thursday starting May 13, and it will charge rental fees.
In the grand scheme of things, these are nicks rather than gouges. As Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas put it, we are still talking about free, world-class museums. “Three rooms inside the 16 Smithsonian museums will be closed,” she said. “Millions of objects will still be available to see.”
But others say the closings have a symbolism that goes deeper than three small exhibits.
“You have to wonder, what is the impact when the Washington Monument is closed and the bathrooms are kind of crummy?” asked John Garder, a budget expert for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Will people want to come back?”
Outside downtown D.C., many of the 14 parks in the region are scaling back services from seasonal rangers to Park Police officers. Visitors to Robert E. Lee’s former home in the Arlington National Cemetery or the Catoctin Mountain Park near Camp David will find the visitor centers closed on weekdays. Carter Barron, Rock Creek Park and Fort Dupont are scaling back summer concerts and theater programs. Antietam National Battlefield cut its living-history program by half.
And tourists are not likely to find closely mowed grass there or at many parks, although the Mall’s mowing contract is holding on. They won’t find a regional communications office there, either: Its six full-time staff now stands at one, a fire information officer on detail from Omaha.
Ten percent of the Mall’s maintenance staff jobs are vacant and won’t be filled anytime soon, Johnson said, which means a hit to trash collection, especially after special events such as the July 4 fireworks. And it’s not just staffing shortages: The park is drastically reducing overtime to make its budget cuts. “We’re looking at every dollar,” she said.
At the African Art Museum on Tuesday, where sections of the “African Mosaic” were set to be shuttered the next day, Barbara Adams, visiting from Greensburg, Pa., said it’s the principle of the closings that matters. “It’s bothersome to me that they are not looking out for the interests of the people,” the 69-year-old freelance writer said, standing in front of a 1970 ink-on-paper etching by Nigerian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya.
Outside the Smithsonian Castle, Jim Brewer of Phoenix, on his first visit to the District since he was 11, said that it was reasonable to find lesser-visited rooms shut. But he called the budget cuts “asinine” and said the Smithsonian may be removing a display that’s important to someone.
“Some of those smaller experiences have more impact, based on your interests and what really resonates with you,” Brewer, 45, said after learning that the display of a flying helmet worn by legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager would soon be closed.
“If you’re in Washington all the time, you can lose perspective on how important it is for someone from Arizona, for example, to have the experience of seeing the museums here. You can easily be seduced into believing that everyone has the same access to the museums and exhibits here,” Brewer said.
The service industry, too, has experienced changes because of the sequester — hotels, in particular, are changing gears to make up for the loss of government business as agencies cut travel expenses and conventions. The industry’s strategy for survival is focusing almost exclusively on the leisure market — particularly Asian tourists — rather than conventioneers.
Kate Gibbs, spokeswoman for Destination D.C., the city’s convention and visitors bureau, takes a glass-half-full approach. If you can’t go to the National Arboretum, she said, go to Rock Creek Park or the National Zoo. “Or see the gardens at Hillwood.”
Tourism officials are heavily promoting the city’s nonfederal attractions, including restaurants, architecture and sporting events — such as the U.S men’s national soccer match against World Cup champion Germany on June 2. Destination D.C. launched a series of summer hotel promotions this week geared to the international market.
“Obviously, sequestration is really frustrating,” Destination D.C. chief executive Elliott Ferguson said, “but we’re perceived way too much as a government destination.”
Despite the fact that it’s punctuated by an earthquake-damaged, scaffolding-clad Washington Monument, the Mall has been relatively lucky. Its overseers were able to compensate for the $1.6 million in cuts to its $33 million budget by curtailing hiring and travel expenses. But while April’s Cherry Blossom Festival went smoothly, there was no National Park Service horticulturist to carry out the annual ritual of predicting when the blossoms would peak. The prediction was made this year by a Park Service employee who was not an expert in horticulture. The vacancy is on hold — indefinitely.
The Fourth of July fireworks will go forward. But the budget cuts forced the park to cancel the annual concert by the Washington Monument, saving $200,000. “There’s that period between dinner and fireworks when people want something to do,” Mall spokeswoman Carol Johnson said. “But we can’t do it this year.”
As part of budget considerations, Mall officials also are proposing to scale back the popular nighttime tours of the monuments, Johnson said.
One of the ironies of the sequester is that while the National Park Service did not have to furlough employees, the separately run U.S. Park Police did. Rank-and-file officers started taking unpaid days off this week. That means that of the 350 patrol officers, SWAT team members and detectives assigned to Washington area parks, a significant number will be missing from each shift.
A snatched purse or more serious crime will get as quick a response as possible, said Ian Glick, chairman of the U.S. Park Police unit of the Fraternal Order of Police. But if a tourist gets separated from his tour group, a frequent occurrence, he should not expect an officer to start searching for him immediately.
“Even if they don’t speak English, we’re not going to be able to assign an officer like we used to,” Glick said. “We just don’t have the officers.”
Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.