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.
"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.
"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.”
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.