It has been sixteen years since the original 9/11 Tribute Museum opened and it has seen five million visitors. The museum is expected to close in the next few weeks, according to its leaders, unless there is a rescue plan from debts that run into millions of dollars.
Jennifer Adams-Webb, co-founder and CEO of the company, said that "we've really been hanging onto by a thread" and that it's now "a make or break situation."
Financial pressures have been mounting for some time. However, museum leaders claim that the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the museum to the brink. This pandemic ravaged tourism after a costly 2017 move.
The 9/11 Tribute Museum was established in 2004 by relatives of victims. They decided to make a former deli into a center for commemoration of the attacks on ground zero. Although the trade center was still a huge pit and construction site in 2004, visitors began to arrive in large numbers.
When the Tribute WTC Visitor Center opened, it was originally called, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that there was a "remarkable need to create a sacred space of remembrance right here and right now."
It featured twisted steel made from the wreckage, photos of victims and other artifacts. It is best known for its walking tours around the site of the trade center, which are led by family members, survivors, and rescue and recovery workers, as well as people who lived near the area on 9/11.
In its first four months, the center attracted 100,000 people. It has been a place where people can express their pain, grief and memories.
Lee Ielpi (co-founder), a former firefighter who was also a 9/11 recovery worker and whose son Jonathan Ielpi died at the trade center, says that he is now able to talk about his son. His father carried his corpse from the rubble.
Some guides have been as far as Virginia to lead tours. Ielpi stated that some guides have become close friends and still take cruises together.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, a taxpayer-subsidized $700 million project, was able to dwarf the center. It opened its memorial plaza in 2011, and a large underground museum in 2014. The museum has attracted more than 18 million people, with the un-ticketed open-air plaza drawing an estimated 55 million.
A few dozen people came to the door on Monday when the Tribute Museum was closed, believing it was the national museum.
Tribute Museum leaders claim it continues to play a valuable and different role because of its emphasis on firsthand accounts from guides who have survived the attacks and recovered from them.
"To have them tell your that tomorrow can be better and it's up for you, it's very powerful," stated Ielpi who was also a founding trustee to the national museum. "We don’t want people to go home with hatred or despair."
Although the Tribute Museum has received grants and donations, it relies heavily upon admission and tour fees (currently $17 for adults and $35 for children).
The museum moved to a larger space just a few blocks from the trade center in 2017 after financial strains. Adams-Webb stated that the move exhausted the museum’s reserves and raised its rent. However, leaders believed it was the best option as the old space was not large enough to accommodate enough people to pay the high rent.
New facilities allowed school groups to be as large as marching band members in the town for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. She said that initially visitor numbers dropped by 30% because the museum tried to remarket itself.
The numbers started to rebound in the following two years. However, the pandemic shut down the museum for several months in 2020. It also imposed travel restrictions which took a significant toll on a museum that attracts 40% of its visitors from outside the United States. After the U.S. opened to all vaccinated travelersin November, the picture started to improve. But then, the super-contagious Omicron surge clouded the situation again, Adams-Webb stated.
The Tribute Museum's parent organisation received more than $300,000. This was in the form of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans which were later forgiven. Adams-Webb stated that the number of staff members has dropped from over 30 to 10 people before the pandemic and that other cuts have been made when possible. In 2019, approximately 3.6 million was spent, the last year that tax records for the parent organization were publicly available.
Adams-Webb lost a friend at the World Trade Center. Leaders approached the national 9/11 museum to discuss possible collaboration or help, but nothing has happened. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum declined comment.
Tribute needs more than a lifeline for current debts. It also needs a partner who can help it become financially sustainable.
She stated that there is still "a small window for opportunity" to save the facility "built by community to meet the need that's there."