In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign are paying $2,000 per day to keep the park open during the federal government shutdown.
When a storm blew down trees in the park last week, volunteers and a local contractor showed up to clear the debris. And Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said the city passed a resolution Wednesday to make up the funding when the friends fall short.
Across the country, cities, states, private agencies and volunteers are trying to fill the void created by the shutdown — with little certainty of reimbursement.
In the Redwoods National and State Parks of Northern California, the state Department of Parks and Recreation has paid for the restrooms to be cleaned and for trash removal.
In New York, the state is paying $65,000 per day to operate the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island.
“We’re watching government at its worst in Washington,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, told radio station 1010 WINS. “The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of America at her best.”
The Utah Office of Tourism, meanwhile, is providing money to staff visitor centers and to continue custodial services at Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.
In the past, some state spending during shutdowns has been repaid, but only in part, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
During the 2013 shutdown, Utah paid nearly $1.7 million keep five national parks open, according to a Pew report last year. The federal government repaid only about $666,000.
But the states, cities and volunteers can’t do everything.
In Washington on Wednesday, as city garbage trucks collected trash on the national mall, rubbish overflowed from cans within sight of the White House. The city is collecting trash at the National Park Service’s 126 properties in Washington and will treat and clear Park Service roadways during bad weather.
In Philadelphia, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center closed again Monday after the city tourism agency’s donation of $32,000 to keep the sites running for three days ran out. Visitors must now view the Liberty Bell through a window.
Cara Schneider, a spokeswoman for the tourism agency Visit Philadelphia, said the organization did not expect to be repaid.
“It’s a donation,” she said. “The understanding was [visitors] are in town already, and they’re going to be disappointed, and it’s possible for us to do this by reallocating marketing money. Let’s just do this.”
“We were not under the impression we would ever get reimbursed,” she said.
The strain of the shutdown is perhaps felt most in smaller towns like Vicksburg, the site of a seven-week siege of Confederate forces by the Union army in 1863. The Confederate surrender was a major Union victory.
The 1,800-acre national park and museum there has become a big tourist destination and revenue driver for the economy.
The park is the largest tourist attraction in Mississippi, with more than 500,000 visitors a year, said Bess Averett, executive director of the Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign, the park’s nonprofit partner.
Thousands visit via river boat tours on the Mississippi.
Since the shutdown began, four river boats have stopped in Vicksburg, each carrying about 400 guests who “have been able to see the park that would not have been able to otherwise,” Averett said. “There’s really no higher priority project we could take on than keeping the gates open.
“We have signed an agreement with the Park Service to fund basic operation until the end of the shutdown,” she said. “[Or] until we run out of funds. Whichever comes first.”
The $2,000 per day pays for a handful of rangers to keep the museum and visitors’ center open, maintenance staff, and law enforcement, she said.
“We have had incidents of vandalism and relic hunting during past shutdowns, which is a real risk ” she said. “This is obviously a national treasure . . . and it is vulnerable during these shutdowns.”
As of Wednesday, she said, the friends had spent $24,000 to keep the park running – about $18,000 of that in new donations from private individuals wanting to keep the doors open.
“Vicksburg is a small town and tourism is a big deal to us,” she said. “About 19 percent of the jobs in this region are related directly to tourism . . . So it really hurts our local economy if we have a shutdown.”
Averett also said the nonprofit does not expect to be repaid.
“It would literally take an act of Congress to repay us. We do not anticipate that happening,” she said.
“We knew going in that that $2,000 a day is not going to be refunded,” she said. “When we signed our partnership agreement with the Park Service in advance of this, we did state that we will not seek reimbursement.”
But the situation cannot continue indefinitely.
“We need the government to reopen,” she said. “There’s really no other way to say it than that . . . It is not helpful to anyone to put these treasures at risk
“The irony really is that this place . . . is being memorialized because we were a country divided,” she said. “Here we are again with a country divided.”
In the meantime, the city of Vicksburg has resolved to help keep the park open for the duration of the shutdown, Flaggs said.
“The park is too important to the local economy of the city of Vicksburg for us to lose one cent while government continues to play politics,” he said. “I don’t want to lose . . . momentum because of what’s going on in Washington, D.C.”
“I don’t believe in [shutting down] any government,” he said. “Government is a function of the people and by the people.”
Flaggs, a veteran state politician, a former Democrat and now an Independent, said he is known as a compromiser: “If I was there, I bet you I could find common ground.”