‘If the government shuts down, we’ll do it again’: Vicksburg military park kept open, and 19,000 visitors showed up

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Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

Cannons at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

A 35-day tug-of-war in Washington D.C. would have kept over 19,000 tourists out of one of the world’s jewels for military history.

The Vicksburg National Military Park, however,  kept its forts manned during the federal government’s partial shutdown thanks to the support of a local non-profit, Friends of VNMP, as well as the City of Vicksburg.

Friends of VNMP released new figures last week showing only a slight decrease in visitation.

“The park is obviously the centerpiece for tourism in Vicksburg,” said Bess Averett, Executive Director of Friends of VNMP, which raised over $50,000 to keep the park operating. “The local economy needs tourism in Vicksburg; for every dollar spent on operations at the Vicksburg National Military Park, there’s a $10 return for the local economy.”

Without the support, Vicksburg National Military Park, maintained through the National Park Service, would have closed its gates during the federal impasse.

Averett said there was concern, despite her group’s marketing, that people would assume the park was closed anyways. To her surprise, over 19,000 people visited during the shutdown, only a mild drop from the 21,000 visits during the same period a year before.

The park is Mississippi’s most visited single tourist attraction, hosting roughly a half million visitors every year. Between the park, the casino business, and river boats, Vicksburg leans heavily on revenue from tourism; according to the Mississippi Development Authority, $22 million in state and local taxes as well as 19 percent of jobs in Warren County are directly attributed to the tourism industry.

Friends of VNMP, which supports the park through advocacy, event-planning, and other means, first sniffed the threat of a shutdown last February, and raised enough money — $2,000 a day — to keep the park open for five days without federal funding.

The money went to use in December, when the threat became reality, but Averett said they didn’t anticipate how long the deadlock in Washington D.C. would last. By the twelfth day of the shutdown, Friends of VNMP was running low on its stash of donations, and the Military Park needed another lifeline.

Grant Statue, Vicksburg National Military Park

Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

Grant Statue, Vicksburg National Military Park

At that point, Mayor George Flaggs Jr. and the City of Vicksburg agreed to match the non-profit’s fundraising, kicking in a total of $22,522 to keep the park alive.

“We thought it was imperative to assist them because the park is a big part of our business,” Flaggs said. “We could not risk losing the revenue that the park generates in [visitors] spending by going to convenience stores, getting gas, and doing things in Vicksburg.”

Flaggs called the money the city contributed, “not a drop in the bucket of what [the Military Park] does for our economy.”

Aside from the economic impact at stake, Averett pointed out that the park would have no security without funding.

“The park is hallowed ground, and we have had instances in past shutdowns of vandalism, where we have had relic hunting. It really leaves us in a very vulnerable position,” she said.

During the 35-day shutdown, the park’s rangers put up dry-erase boards for people to write where they traveled from.

Bess Averett, Friends of VNMP

A dry-erase board where visitors could write where they’re from.

“Everyday that board would get filled with every state you can imagine, countries from all over the globe. We had people from South Africa, Spain, England, Germany,” Averett said. “It’s impactful to see those names everyday when I walk into the visitor’s center, because these are people that couldn’t just come back next week when the government reopens, so it was really great to have that daily affirmation that we did some good today. We kept these tourists in the area, we gave them access to this amazing place.”

With the federal shutdown only at a temporary halt, Mayor Flaggs ensured that the city would keep the park open should the shutdown restart. He said during the 2013 shutdown, Vicksburg could feel the effects of the park’s closure.

“It had a negative impact, but that’s why we wanted to step in this time, and, in fact, if the government shuts down [again] we’ll do it again,” he said. “It’s the lifeline of our economic impact to our community. It makes more sense for us to pay $2,000 a day than lose the momentum of our tourism.”

In the government shutdown of 2013, states were met with similar dilemmas when tourist destinations managed through the National Park Service faced closure; Arizona and New York each paid out of its state budget to keep the Grand Canyon National Park and Statue of Liberty open, respectively.