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Hundreds celebrate opening of Arch museum and visitors center

The Normandy High School Band provided the beat and Mother Nature brought on the heat, as hundreds gathered on the St. Louis riverfront Tuesday morning to celebrate the opening of the new museum and visitors center at the Gateway Arch.

The ribbon cutting marked the final stage in a five-year project to revitalize the Arch grounds. Speakers emphasized the public-private partnership that planned and funded the $380 million project.

"For the first time in National Park Service history, a local population chose to tax themselves,'' said Cardinals Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, who served as master of ceremonies for the event. He praised St. Louis city and county voters for passing a sales tax to support the project.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke called the partnership a model and commended the cooperation between the National Park Service, city and state officials and civic organizations.

Children play in a fountain in front of the Gateway Arch's new visitor center Tuesday, July 3, 2018, before a ceremony to re-open the park grounds after a multi-year renovation project.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
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Children play in a fountain in front of the Gateway Arch's new visitor center Tuesday before a ceremony to re-open the park and grounds after a multi-year renovation project.

"Our park system is for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,'' Zinke said. "And we need, as a park and a government, to get back to working for the people.''

He reminded the crowd that the plaza where guests were seated was constructed over Interstate 44 to better connect the Arch with downtown St. Louis.  Gateway Arch National Park now expresses the majesty of the nation's tallest monument, he said.

Missouri's two U.S. senators both attended.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill told those gathered that the Arch project is positive news for everyone. 

“When everyone wants to talk about how government stinks, let me say, 'This is how it’s supposed to work,' ” she said.

McCaskill said it took teamwork from the federal government and National Park Service to clear red tape, the Missouri Department of Transportation's work on building the "lid" over the interstate and the efforts of local government in making everything happen on schedule.

The Normandy High School Marching Band parades past the Arch Tuesday, July 3, 2018. The band performed as part of ceremonies to rea-open the Arch museum.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
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The Normandy High School Marching Band parades past the Arch Tuesday. The band performed as part of ceremonies to re-open the Arch museum.

"And maybe, most importantly, the people of the St. Louis region, both the city and the county saying, ‘Yeah, we want to tax ourselves a little to make sure we take care of our crown jewel — the Arch,’ ” McCaskill said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt spoke about overcoming concerns of the National Park Service in the early years so that the partnership could develop.

“I think, initially there was a lot of you at the Park Service [who thought] ‘Well, that means private and local money and the same kind of decision-making that we always had,’" he said. "But fortunately for us, we had representatives of the Park Service that wanted to understand that this wasn’t the way that was going to be if this was going to work here or anywhere else.”

Visitors wait in line to enter the Gateway Arch museum and visitor center for the first time Tuesday after it re-opened following a five-year renovation. July 2018
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
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Visitors wait in line to enter the Gateway Arch museum and visitor center for the first time Tuesday after it re-opened following a five-year renovation.

After the ribbon cutting, the Normandy High School Band led a procession to the northern edge of the Arch grounds for a festival including music and food trucks at a new public gathering space that replaced a parking garage. 

Vanessa Robinson Keith of Creve Coeur was among the visitors who braved the sultry 90-degree heat to observe the ribbon cutting and visit the museum. She described the Arch with pride.

"It's something we offer the nation and the world,'' she said.

Follow Mary and Abigail on Twitter: @MaryDLeonard; @AbigailCensky

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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