The Missing Conversation About Visitor Attendance at the Gateway Arch

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St. Louis Arch - attendance

As noted many times by leaders of the coming Arch grounds renovation, the economic argument for the planned $578M outlay is "heads on beds". The strategy is to make the Arch grounds a compelling place to visit, attract more tourists who will stay in downtown hotels and eat in downtown restaurants, creating jobs and tax revenue in the process. It's also hoped that locals will rediscover the Arch grounds. So what do we know about attendance at the Arch and how can this inform a strategy of revitalization?

It's a somewhat volatile history. The year with the highest attendance remains 1966, the first full year after Saarinen's Arch was completed. The numbers them plummet from 4.6M to 1.4M just four years later. And this in a city with twice as many residents as we have today. From then, it's up and down. Up to 3.5M in 1977. Down to 1.7M in 1984. Then a 12-year rise gets the grounds back to 3.6M visitors in 1996. Attendance stays high until 2002, dropping by a million visitors from 2005 to 2008. From there, visitation has grown by 28%. In 2012, the National Park Service recorded 2.5M visitors to the Arch.

The question is what drives Arch visitation? It's clearly a complicated answer, that much is clear. It's amazing to think that attendance fell by 70% in the four years after the Arch's keystone was set. Rises and falls have not corresponded with renovations of the grounds, building of the north parking garage, completion of the grand staircase, or whether visitors need to cross Memorial Drive. There also appears to be no correlation with other larger projects such as the Edward Jones Dome, the Gateway Mall, Lumiere Casino, Busch Stadium, and MetroLink.

Frank DeGraaf of countondowntown.com is an airline industry veteran and thought to look at traffic through Lambert International Airport and Arch grounds visitor numbers. Here's what he found:

Correlation-Lambert-STL-Arch-Visitors-web

It appears plausible that the two are linked, that a couple million more people flying into and out of Lambert equals a few hundred thousand more people visiting the Arch. What has been the impact of unemployment, economic depressions, downtown's worker population? Perhaps a healthy city is more important to the success of the Arch grounds, than a renovated memorial is to a healthy city.

Even strident supporters of the Arch redo, and the $628M tax plan, understand that that issue of attendance is complex. There are national economic trends that impact travel and tourism. There's river flooding and continued drain of city residents and downtown jobs. Shouldn't the understanding that "heads on beds" is a complex issue lead to a complex discussion? If the goal is a heretofore never achieved, sustained 4M visitors to the Arch each year, how should one approach the issue? Where should the city's (and county's and region's) limited funds be invested? What has driven attendance in the past?

It's tempting to label the 3/16% sales tax proposal as nominal, a trivial or inconsequential burden. It's just $0.19 on a $100 purchase. It's also $628M (in today's dollars) in local tax money over 20 years. That's not just a lot for a city and county that both lost population over the past decade, it's a lot of money anywhere. Dreaming of an open discussion about how best to spend more than half a billion dollars isn't going to make it happen, but perhaps the missing discussion on Arch grounds attendance can still be had.

St. Louis Arch - attendance

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  • John R

    It is important to keep in mind that these are estimated numbers that include all visitation to all JNEM buildings and grounds…. so for example bad or good weather for Fair Saint Louis could have a meaningful impact for any given year. Aside from general economic impacts affecting travel (2008 was a bad year for tourism b/c of record high gas prices over $4.10/gallon in spring/summer…. before the economic crisis impact really started to hit in the fall/winter) You’d really have to drill down deep on any visitation studies to make solid conclusions on what may be happening with respect to the JNEM fluctuating as a tourist destination over given time frames.

    I do suspect that visitations will bump up a good amount for 2015 & 2016; the key will be if significantly higher numbers for out-of-region tourists can be sustained or whether they drop back to current levels. Also, my hope is that improved museum exhibits and visitor center info does a better job in encouraging both locals and outside visitors to get out and explore the many area sites related to the story of westward expansion and Lewis and Clark.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    Don’t these numbers include Fair St. Louis and VP Fair attendance? So, what attractions and bands were part of the fairs during the peak years? Without more information the raw estimated numbers don’t tell me very much.

    • John R

      NPS does have some figures on attendance that are just on visits to the Arch only, and I think the figure off the top of my head was about 1.7 million per year on average the past few years.

      • T-Leb

        There was a transformer fire in 2003? Also, front page story of Post Dispatch showed elevator systems’ wire rope had some issues that needed to be repaired, company I work for received a call about it but we declined to bid, we don’t do elevators, just overhead cranes.
        What is the maximum amount of people that can “ride” the Arch in a given year? Maybe they need to modernize their motor controls to increase production capacity.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Are you saying Maroon 5 and Barenaked Ladies may be responsible for the attendance dive of 2011? :) Perhaps the swoon of ’08 should be laid at the feet of the Black Crowes, Rusted Root and Boyz II Men? Counting Crows and Train brought an extra 400,000 in ’09? Anyway…there may be something there. If there’s a correlation, maybe an extra $1M/yr to bring in huge acts would make sense? See Springsteen under the Arch, stay around town for a couple days…

      • T-Leb

        When Switchfoot played, after local Dead cover band Jake’s Leg, I swear hordes of Christian rock fans were running toward the stage, I think they all were bused in for the event. Be interesting to see Mardi Gras numbers compared to Arch attendance.

      • John R

        Now that you mention it, most, if not all, of the 2011 concerts including Barenaked Ladies were moved over to the Civic Center area due to the flooding. I wouldn’t doubt that fluctuations in special event attendance could account for 250K swings one way or the other.

        As a whole, visits to JNEM facilities have averaged about 1.9 million in recent years. What I don’t have right now are year-to-year figures that would show how widely they fluctuate.

        • T-Leb

          Robert Randolph playing Live on the Levee was the greatest outside concert I’ve ever been to in St. Louis. Sat on the steps of the Arch, Robert even let a local kid get on stage and play guitar along side of him, fireworks after the show, took Metrolink to and from ==== perfect event. Oh yea, the concert was FREE! I know with flooding they pretty much moved the concert series to Soldier Memorial. My public comments to Arch project was to bring music back under the Arch, well, stage was on LKS with vendors on the sides.

        • Alex Ihnen

          The year-to-year figures are on the post above, unless I’m misunderstanding you.

          It would be interesting if recent fluctuations were largely due to big event events. This would support the planned and funded effort to raise LKS and keep it out of the river. It’s a great plan and ready to go. IMO more programming is the answer and not more green space or fancier this or that.

          • http://www.gatewaystreets.org/ Herbie Markwort

            But if events at Soldier’s Memorial vs JNEM is a prime driver behind the JNEM attendance numbers, then wouldn’t the economic impact of moving the events back underneath the Arch be close to a net zero? Just the same people going to slightly different downtown locations?

          • Alex Ihnen

            Yes.

          • John R

            Right. Being a festival venue is an important function for the grounds, but that is for the most part is separate from the economic development/tourism discussion. With respect to this issue, it is the attendance figures related to JNEM facilities that are more important than overall figures that include festivals/special events on grounds

          • John R

            The numbers that you show include all visits including grounds for all purposes. There are separate numbers for visits to the facilities themselves…. Old Courthouse, Arch visitors center and Museum, which I was referencing above.

  • Zack S.

    You should also chart these numbers against Cardinals attendance and Rams attendance, but the lambert numbers do look convincing. We’ve got to get passenger traffic up at lambert. International traffic.

    Is there a breakdown of arch visits by country?

    • John R

      I’m not sure about numbers by country, but a survey a few years back showed that about 1/3 of visitors to JNEM (again, that’s more than the Arch) came from more than 500 miles away.

      • Will Fru

        But did they come to STL specifically to visit the JNEM? I find that very hard to believe.

        • John R

          I think such studies don’t necessarily say that the attraction is the sole reason for a visit to an area by itself, but that they help keep people in the area for an extended time and force $$ expenditures. Current figures say average stay is 1/2 day at Arch as part of average 2.5 day in Saint Louis…. 2 of the 3 scenarios assume the improvements help extend the visit to the Arch by another .5 days and I believe overall visit to the area as well.

    • http://contact.innov8ion.com David Goldstick
  • FrankDeGraaf

    I don’t think it’s needed to go into detail too much (unless you want to).

    Attendance at the Arch/grounds/museum fluctuates with A. the state of the U.S. economy, and B. local economic factors.

    A good example of a local factor: Lambert handles 17 million less passengers per year, or 1.4 million less per month than it did in 2001. This has obviously had an impact on Arch attendance, hotel rooms booked, and taxi miles driven. (It also burdened Lambert with a $1 Billion debt.)

    Similar correlation can be found between Arch attendance and the US economy as a whole, high gas prices, and [fill in the economic blank]. The point is that beautification of the Arch grounds wouldn’t have played and will not play a (significant) factor in the attendance numbers. People generally do not visit the Arch for the grounds or the museum.

    Any increase in numbers caused by shiny new grounds and museum will be temporarily, and not even close to the estimated 4,440 jobs downtown will be created. (continued)

    City Arch River should just be honest and tell us it’s a pride thing. We want it to look nice. We want to create an improved riverfront. I could perhaps get behind that. But I surely cannot get behind bogus forecasts that even the plan’s backers can’t seriously believe.

    HTC’s that have pretty much driven the entire revitalization of downtown St. Louis are going to be cut significantly but somehow it’s OK to raise taxes, largely for a National Park we don’t own or control.

    Shouldn’t the priority be to restructure and decrease the debt at Lambert, a city-owned property and a demonstrable large driver of the local economy?

    Sinking local tax payers’ money into the Arch grounds just doesn’t seem a logical, systematic approach to meet the challenges the St. Louis region is facing in order to stay relevant in an ever more competitive global economy.

    Frank DeGraaf

    • John R

      Frank, I took a look at the Development Strategies study that the jobs figures derive from. The study of course utilizes standard multiplier effects as all such studies do and the 4,400 jobs number comes from Scenario C, where attendance figures jump to the ten-year average high seen from 95-05 (about 3.2 million) and increase length of stay in Saint Louis by half-a-day. It only looks at those visitors coming from more than 100 miles, which is said to be 75%. Scenarios A & B, which suppose the increased attendance but no longer stay and no increased attendance but longer stay, respectively, come up with smaller gains.

      It does not look to me like the study is any less sound than the typical economic impact study purporting to show a city’s investment in x will result in y. My belief is that attendance likely will indeed jump significantly for a year or two before receding to a level that is higher than it is now but may not be as much as the 95-05 average.

      I don’t disagree that airport investments may be a better priority and I hope that the region can address that, but I’m not sure how that would be put to voters. I don’t agree that design and museum improvements have minimal impact. I agree completely that the integrity of the HTC must be preserved.

      • FrankDeGraaf

        Thanks for taking a look at the study. You’re absolutely right: It will be hard to find support for a tax increase for the airport even though it is city property and funded by user (airline and passengers) fees. It doesn’t cost the taxpayer a dime, even now.
        And that’s the problem: Instead of investing in getting the region back in the competitive ranks with say, Minneapolis or Seattle, we’re falling further behind. Now spending $380M on the Arch grounds is like buying big shiny wheels for your ’87 Monte Carlo not running on all cylinders.

  • T-Leb

    Don’t forget when Obama got 70-90000 people to visit JNEM. http://www.riverfronttimes.com/slideshow/barack-obama-rally-gateway-arch-st-louis-165954/#19

    • Alex Ihnen

      Odd though, right? That’s 100,000 people (by the Wall Street Journal estimate) and just 1.9M, the lowest total in 24 years for 2008. The couple hour rally accounted for 5% of the entire visitor count for the year?

  • http://twitter.com/blordcastillo Brett Lord-Castillo

    Something interesting… there is virtually no correlation between Cardinals attendance and Arch Visitors, nor change in attendance or change in visitors. And by virtually no, I mean that none of these combinations produced an r-value greater than 0.1.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Another way to look at those numbers is to wonder if most of the visitors to the Arch drive rather than fly to Saint Louis. Also, the city has slowly added a diverse set of entertainment destinations that appeal to immediate regional neighbors. Of our out of town visitors last year, we took the repeat visitors and former residents to places like City Museum, City Garden, The Kemper, The Pulitzer and The Botanic Garden.

    We had a couple of NY friends drive through for the first time and we met them at the Arch–but just to wander under the magnificence of it after hours. My NY friends are not interested in the Arch Museum in the way that they are interested in (the far more innovative) City Garden and City Museum.

    Shorter: the Arch Museum has lots of competition now. It is static and not our best feature?

    Advice to ArchRiver? Enlarge the recessed circular entry plaza and turn it into a destination on its own–a crowd gatherer like Millennial Fountain park–as innovative as City Garden.