By JENNIFER PELTZ, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Years before the 9/11 museum was built at the World Trade Center, a visitor center across the street opened to offer tours led by relatives of victims , survivors and others with personal connections to the trauma and tragedy of 9/11.
Sixteen years and five million visitors later, what is now the 9/11 Tribute Museum is set to close within weeks, according to its leaders, unless there is a last-minute bailout of millions of dollars in debt.
“We really hung by a thread,” said co-founder and CEO Jennifer Adams-Webb, and now it’s “a watershed moment.”
As financial pressures have been building for some time, executives say the museum has been pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic, which has hammered tourism following a costly move in 2017.
The 9/11 Tribute Museum has its roots in 2004, when a group founded by relatives of victims decided to transform a former deli, just steps from Ground Zero, into a focal point for commemorating the 2001 terrorist attacks. which killed nearly 3,000 people. The mall was a massive pit and construction site in 2004, but visitors were already arriving in droves.
“There is a tremendous need to create a sacred place of remembrance right here at this time,” then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the opening of the Tribute WTC Visitor Center ( as it was originally called) in 2006.
It featured twisted steel from the wreckage, a photo gallery of victims and other artifacts. But he became best known for his walking tours of the mall site, led by relatives of the dead, survivors, rescue workers and people who lived nearby on 9/11.
The center attracted 100,000 visitors in its first four months alone. Over the years, it has also provided over 900 volunteer tour guides with a valuable outlet for their grief, pain and memories.
“I can talk about my son – it’s 20 years later – to people who want to hear about my son,” said co-founder Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter and 9/11 recovery worker whose son firefighter Jonathan Ielpi was killed. at the mall. Her father pulled her body from the rubble.
Some guides have traveled from as far as northern Virginia to lead tours. Others have become such close friends that they continue to cruise together, Ielpi said.
The center was overshadowed by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, a $700 million taxpayer-funded project that opened its memorial plaza in 2011 and a sprawling underground museum in 2014. The museum alone drew more than 18 million visitors and the open public. air, seat without ticket, about 55 million.
On Monday, when the Tribute Museum was closed for the day, at least a dozen people showed up at the door, thinking it was the national museum.
Leaders of the Tribute Museum say it still plays a different and valuable role by emphasizing the guides’ first-hand accounts of life through attacks and their recovery.
“For them to tell you that tomorrow can be a better day and it’s up to us, that’s very powerful,” said Ielpi, who was also one of the national museum’s founding trustees. “We don’t want people to walk away with hate or any form of desperation.”
The Tribute Museum has secured grants and donations, but relies heavily on admission and tour fees (currently $17 and $35, respectively, for adults).
Financial strains began in 2017, when the museum moved to a much larger space a few blocks from the mall. The move depleted the museum’s reserves and increased its rent, but executives felt it was their best option because the old location was too small to accommodate enough visitors to support a rising rent bill, Adams said. -Webb.
The new facility allowed school groups as large as city marching bands for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. However, visitor numbers initially dropped by around 30% as the museum struggled to remarket itself, she said.
Numbers began to rebound over the next two years, but the pandemic then shuttered the place for months in 2020 and spurred travel restrictions that weighed heavily on a museum that draws 40% of its visitors from other countries. The picture began to improve after the United States fully reopened to many vaccinated international travelers in early November, then was clouded again by the super-contagious omicron surge of the virus, Adams-Webb said.
The Tribute Museum’s parent organization secured more than $300,000 in pandemic relief through federal Paycheck Protection Program loans that were later forgiven, according to Small Business Administration records. Adams-Webb said staff had been reduced from more than 30 people before the pandemic to about 10 now, and further reductions had been made where possible. Expenses totaled about $3.6 million in 2019, the last year for which the parent organization’s tax records are publicly available.
Adams-Webb, who lost a friend who worked at the World Trade Center, said executives approached the National 9/11 Museum about potential help or collaboration, but nothing materialized. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum declined to comment.
Beyond a lifeline to deal with current debts, Tribute also needs a partner to help figure out how to make it financially viable.
She said there was still “a small window of opportunity” for someone to step in and save a facility “built by the community to meet the need for this need that exists”.
Associated Press video reporter David R. Martin contributed.
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