A better way to get to Lady Liberty: Make it easier for visitors to the Statue of Liberty
About the author: Jesse Brackenbury is president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the non-profit in a public-private partnership with the National Park Service.
Two years ago today, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island closed due to the pandemic and visitation came to a screeching halt. The biggest glimpse of normalcy we are beginning to see is that the long entry line outside the security tent located in Battery Park has returned.
Forty years ago, President Ronald Reagan asked Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca to lead the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation and raise private funds for the restoration of these iconic monuments. The historic public-private partnership saved these sites, and today they remain two of the world’s most visited attractions and cherished symbols of our country. Over the subsequent years, the Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to create the National Museum of Immigration, construct the Statue of Liberty Museum, and establish a free 65-million-record Ellis Island Passenger Database. Since Lady Liberty’s centennial celebration in 1986, she has looked out over 130 million visitors to her shores and to Ellis Island’s National Museum of Immigration.
But the incredible journey taken by island visitors begins with an underwhelming experience in the onshore security tent. Since 9/11, a utilitarian plastic tent in Lower Manhattan has housed the airport-style x-ray machines and metal detectors necessary to screen visitors. The 12,000-square-foot structure had to be rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy and remains at risk from future weather events.
The tent also obstructs views of New York Harbor and limits public access to the waterfront. Furthermore, the nondescript tent isn’t visible from the street, so scammers regularly misdirect confused tourists onto other sightseeing tour boats that never go to the Islands. We are grateful to the National Park Service and the Park Police for their tireless work assuring everyone’s safety, but it is imperative that we upgrade the experience.
Visitors sometimes wait hours in the sun, the rain and the frigid winter. Certainly not the right start to this once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially with anticipation building for what is expected to be the busiest summer at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in three years. At peak times during the second half of last year, the entry line stretched out the door just like the good old, pre-pandemic days.
Should Pier A become the security and welcome center, visitors could begin with a signature embarkation experience. In fact, the queuing process begs for interpretation; waiting in line with your bags for screening is exactly what immigrants traveling through Ellis Island did a century ago.
Imagine if the visitors’ line were inside a climate-controlled building with interactive educational exhibits, digital screens and historical artifacts that transport people back in time. Imagine if visitors could easily spot their ferry departure building from the street, meeting up with friends and family right in front.
This opportunity exists now: The historic Pier A building, which currently sits vacant since its former restaurant tenant ceased operations due to the pandemic, is highly visible. The beautiful 1886 building, erected in the same year of the Statue of Liberty, received a $40 million renovation in 2014. With multiple stories, it is large enough for the necessary screening operations, interpretive exhibits and more.
The building has long been discussed for Island ferry operations and a visitor center; a city official once described Pier A as having the potential to be “the greatest harbor destination anywhere in the world.”
As the city prepares to rebuild the Battery Park seawall, the current security screening site must be relocated — and we cannot let it move back to its current location.
Momentum for screening operations in Pier A is growing, with public support from the National Park Service, the ferry concessionaire, the Battery Park City Authority and the Battery Conservancy. But this long-term solution requires local, state and federal stakeholders to navigate the planning complexities together.
It is urgent to plan now for 4-million-plus annual visitors once again. The Statue and Ellis are among the most visited attractions in the city, and, as COVID has reminded us in the worst way, the tourism industry is critical to the economy of the city and the state.
Although crowds have been diminished by the pandemic, tourists are coming back. December visitation was close to pre-pandemic levels. Unfortunately, the deterioration of the Battery Park Seawall has limited the landing slips available so the ferry operator, Statue City Cruises, has had to turn some visitors away. We must lay the groundwork now, so visitors can keep visiting the symbol of freedom.
Let us provide the next 100-million visitors with an outstanding onshore experience as they set off to the Islands for a trip that they will remember all their lives.