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Charlestown Navy Yard community scuffles to deal with government shutdown consequences

Posted by  October 11, 2013 02:55 PM

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By Carl Setterlund and Catalina Gaitan, Globe Correspondents

In a city known for its nationally historic sites, the federal government’s partial shutdown that began Oct. 1 has had varying levels of impact across Boston’s tourism infrastructure. But the Charlestown Navy Yard, home of the U.S.S. Constitution, is one microcosm of American history that has felt its full brunt.  

The 200-year-old ship, nicknamed “Old Ironsides,” is a popular tourist and field trip attraction included on the Freedom Trail, on duck boat and on trolley tours. This month, in one fell swoop, its 130 acres of real estate on the Boston Harborwalk became an example of the shutdown’s toll on tourism and the tourism industry.

How the shutdown is affecting other sites: Link.

Andy Simon, 75, is visiting Boston from New Mexico with his wife, Marion, and said they’ve had to change their sightseeing plans on the fly. 

"We won't go [see the U.S.S. Constitution] now. What’s the point of seeing a closed place,” said Simon, who called the interruption in their plans “disappointing.”

The U.S.S. Constitution Museum is a privately owned not-for-profit, but is located within the Navy Yard, which has been closed to the public since the beginning of the month. 

The museum is still fully staffed and operational, but its proximity to the Constitution, which under normal circumstances is an asset, has turned its location in the Charlestown Navy Yard into something of a prison cell, keeping out potential visitors during what museum Director of Development Laura O’Neil said is usually their second or third most popular month.

“Normally, October is a great time of year,” echoed museum President Anne Grimes Rand. “We usually welcome about 1,000 visitors a day or 2,000 over the weekends.” 

One could have been Marsha Forrest, 62. 

She traveled from California on a sightseeing expedition only to be denied access to the museum. 

“The shutdown is affecting people in a very negative way, and coming here and seeing this reminds me of that,” Forrest said.

The U.S.S. Constitution Museum estimates it is facing an average shortfall of $7,000 per day in on-site donations and gift shop revenue with a cumulative impact that keeps growing.

In search of an innovative solution, O’Neil said the museum partnered with the Massachusetts Port Authority and National Development, which manages property adjacent to Charlestown Navy Yard, including a pier with one of the best views of Constitution currently available.

“They had the grace to let us set up a tent where we can have temporary exhibits and retail components, so we can still deliver our mission,” O’Neil said.

The museum was given permission to direct tourist traffic to the pier, where they have constructed a makeshift welcome center that Grimes Rand calls their “museum-on-the-go.” 

Visitors can still gain a history lesson from members of the museum’s roughly 25-person full-time staff. Apparel and informational handouts are also available.

“People have certainly been appreciative of the fact that our staff have been able to be here,” Grimes Rand said. “We’re still trying to do our job even though you can’t get through the front doors of our museum.”

In comparison, another Boston landmark, the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, has been able to maintain operations that are near normal. One notable difference is that several employees have picked up extra shifts to cover for National Park Service rangers, who were furloughed.

“We own this land and we own this building, so we are very fortunate to be keeping the visitor experience as rich as possible,” said Lyn DuVaLuse, the director of Marketing and Public Programming at the associated Museum of African American History.

As the Naval Yard stays shuttered, the community around the U.S.S. Constitution and its museum is feeling the pinch, too. 

The Marriott Residence Inn Boston Harbor on Tudor Wharf attracts many tourists because of its proximity to the Navy Yard. It has taken a financial hit during October.

Robin Skees, a senior area sales manager at the Pyramid Hotel Group, the franchisee of the Residence Inn Boston Harbor, said the occupancy rate has taken a hit since the shutdown. 

Five group sales - defined as 10 or more people staying at least two nights - have fallen through since Oct. 1, while roughly 15 percent of customers have cancelled their reservations. 

“It’s definitely not a good time to have this happen,” Skees said.

Other tourist enterprises that rely on the Navy Yard have suffered as well.

"We're losing money," said Paul Navarro, a tour agent at CityView, a trolley tour company in Boston. Navarro said several other sites the tour visits are also closed, but that CityView tours usually stop at the U.S.S Constitution so their customers have a chance to go aboard the ship. 

Even with the falloff of business, one neighbor, the Navy Yard Bistro and Wine Bar, has stepped in to help. It donated 20 percent of its profits on Tuesday night to the museum. The restaurant - located a block from the museum - estimated its contribution at close to $1,000. 

“It brings so many people to the Navy Yard and it’s a shame to see them close their doors,” said Doug Fischer, 44, a bartender at the Navy Yard Bistro.

Fischer called the museum a “gem of the community.”

With no end to the shutdown yet in sight, tourists will continue to visit the Charlestown Navy Yard only to find an empty ship, closed gates and a community doing the best it can.

“I didn’t really, truly realize what was shut down,” said Margo Friedman of Denver, Colo. “I’m just a little needle in the haystack. There’s people from all around the world that come here.”

Tori Bedford, John King and Jackie Tempera contributed to this article.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and 
Emerson College.

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