The Missing Conversation About Visitor Attendance at the Gateway Arch

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:

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