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Why Visits To The Gateway Arch Are Down — Despite $380 Million Redevelopment

For many out-of-state visitors driving to St. Louis, the Gateway Arch is their first glimpse of Missouri.
File photo I David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
For many out-of-state visitors driving to St. Louis, the Gateway Arch is their first glimpse of Missouri.

St. Louis’ most notable feature — the Gateway Arch — hasn’t seen as many fresh faces lately. According to the St. Louis Business Journal, the Arch grounds aren’t getting the kinds of visitor numbers projected before the $380 million redevelopment project, CityArchRiver, that wrapped up in 2018. 

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske delved into the reasons for that and what new programs are in store to help bring those numbers up. Joining the discussion were Jacob Kirn, St. Louis Business Journal economic development editor, and Mike Ward, superintendent of the Gateway Arch National Park. 

“The genesis for this story in a way was that I had remembered the backers of CityArchRiver, in pitching taxpayers to get involved in this project, had made all kinds of predictions,” Kirn said. CityArchRiver’s study predicted that there would be a 25% to 33% increase in attendance to the monument in the first two years after completion, he said, which would then stabilize at 15% to 25%.

“The numbers from the National Park Service showed that in the full year after the ribbon-cutting, so last year in 2019, their numbers were that there were a little bit over 2 million visits. The year before the ground-breaking (in 2015) on the project, there were about 2.5 [million visits].”

Those numbers didn’t come as a surprise for the NPS, Ward said. With time, he said, the numbers will meet expectations, and cited construction delays, general confusion about open times and parking as factors. Kirn’s report also mentioned recent flooding, to a drop in visits at all national parks, as accounting for the decline. 

Kirn said backers of the privately invested redevelopment believe that the investment was still worth it and that not enough time has passed to judge the numbers sufficiently. 

“I’d push back a little bit on that, because there seems to be a little bit of a double standard … because when it came to get taxpayers involved, it was that the two years immedately after, we would see this big jump,” Kirn said. “Another thing we heard from people in reaction to the article, was about downtown in general … [that] maybe there’s not enough to do.”

New and longtime initiatives are afoot to help boost attendance at the Arch grounds. New for 2020 are a continuation of Mississippi River cruises for Valentine's Day, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day, and free Yoga Buzz classes inside the new Gateway Arch Visitor Center. Previous events include Sunrise Yoga at Kiener Plaza, PJs and Pancakes with Santa, and Decked-Out Divas. 

There are also opportunities for Arch visitors to save money on tram rides during off-peak times. Ward said the goal is to have hometowners visit often. 

“We’re counting on that a lot, to be honest. The numbers we had recently were that most folks visit it every 10 years, and we’d like to get that down to three to five,” he added. 

Ward added that event information and parking garages that are close by and meet security requirements are listed on the NPS website.

Listen to the full discussion: 

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.