Museum fee is not the kind of tribute 9/11 families had in mind

By Mike Kelly Record

The price of memory is not cheap.

More than a decade since the September 11 terror attacks comes word of the high price that people will be charged to visit the Ground Zero museum so they can remember that horrific day and pay tribute to the victims.

This is not happy news.

The announcement that visitors to the 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero will pay an entry fee as high as $25 per person to view underground exhibits and a vault containing the remains of unidentified victims has renewed a roiling debate over what should be done with that hallowed ground – and who’s in charge of it.

This battle should surprise no one.

The seeds of discord were planted in that seemingly unified, high-minded time a decade ago when political figures from New York and New Jersey joined with financiers and urban planners to form a private foundation to design, build and pay for a museum and memorial dedicated to the bloodiest terrorist attack in American history. The question of whether the federal government and, specifically, the National Park Service might be the better choice to oversee such a historic site was barely discussed.

Now we’re paying for that oversight.

When the underground museum opens its doors next April – if construction continues on schedule – visitors will have to plunk down $20 to $25 per ticket, officials say.

Already, visitors are being charged a $2 service fee for what were supposed to be free tickets to the above-ground memorial park where the victims’ names are etched into walls that surround the cascading waterfalls in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers.

So do the math: When the museum opens, a family of four may have to fork over $100 just to pay a visit to a scene of so much carnage and heartbreak. And that doesn’t include the cost of the subway or taxi ride downtown, or the price of 9/11 coffee mugs and other souvenirs – or the service fee for the memorial park.

Put another way, the proposed fee would effectively exclude low- and moderate-income families who were as affected as anyone by the 9/11 attacks.

By contrast, the Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks charge only $25 per car, with no per-person fee. Entry to the Gettysburg battlefield, which is also run by the National Park Service, is free, though entry into the visitor center museum is $12.50 for adults and $8.50 for children between the ages of 6 and 12–kids under 6 are free.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum Foundation says families of victims will not be charged to visit. But there is no clear definition yet of where to draw the line on what constitutes a family member. Will second cousins be admitted free? How about stepchildren of widows who remarried?

The lack of answers to these questions, along with other concerns, has amplified the criticism, especially from families of victims, who are already angry that unidentified remains are being placed in the below-ground museum and not in the open-air memorial park.

A coalition of vocal critics, known as the 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims, called the ticket fee “the last straw.”

“This means that ordinary people who merely want to pay homage to the dead who have not been identified will be charged a ticket fee?” said Tim [sic] Meehan of Toms River, who lost his daughter, Colleen. “That’s wrong.”

Sally Regenhard, who lost her 28-year-old son, Christian, a probationary firefighter, in the 9/11 attacks, has become one of the most outspoken critics of the overall rebuilding plan for Ground Zero. She was even harsher in her condemnation than Meehan, accusing the foundation of using human remains as a “marketing tool” to attract ticket-paying customers to the museum.

Michael Frazier, a spokesman for the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, declined to comment on Monday. But when news of the hefty ticket price was circulated over the weekend, Joe Daniels, the president of the Memorial and Museum, said he thought that visiting the museum “is going to be worth the expenditure” for patrons.

Daniels and others associated with the museum and memorial – including the foundation’s chairman and its most generous donor, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – seem to be banking on the hope that visitors will be so impressed with the exhibits that they won’t mind paying $25 per ticket.

That may turn out to be true. While the museum’s opening is almost a year away, descriptions of its design and layout indicate that exhibits will include large Trade Center beams, crushed fire and police vehicles, as well as an entire wall with photos of victims. There also will be an exhibit detailing the terror plot directed by Osama bin Laden in which radical Islamic jihadists hijacked commercial jetliners and crashed them into the Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a farm field in Pennsylvania. One plan calls for a display of photos of the hijackers.

Will all this be worth $25 per ticket? Maybe.

“In a perfect world we’d prefer not to charge anybody anything,” said Debra Burlingame, a foundation board member whose brother, a pilot, was on the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

Will the $25 generate enough cash to cover a $60 million annual operating budget?

“We don’t doubt that we are going to get visitors,” Burlingame said. “We are concerned about being financially prudent.”

But what is the line between good business and recklessness?

That question bubbles up time and again in debates over the museum, with supporters like Burlingame arguing that the museum needs a strong financial footing and critics claiming that money is being wasted.

Glenn Corbett, a Waldwick fire official and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who testified before the 9/11 Commission about skyscraper safety, has become a frequent museum critic. He wonders whether the ticket fee is needed to pay the hefty executive salaries at the museum and foundation. A check of the foundation’s public financial records indicates that 12 officials there earn more than $162,000 annually. Daniels is paid the highest salary, $319,466.

“It’s the Monstrosity on the Hudson,” said Corbett of the museum and its staff of high-salaried executives.

Legislation that called for the federal government to pay $20 million of the museum’s annual operating costs was rejected by Congress last year. Earlier this year, Bloomberg contributed $15 million from his personal fortune to help cover the museum’s expenses. But even his treasure chest is not bottomless.

Not many other options are available. When asked last year if it would consider taking over the management of the museum and finances, the National Park Service responded with an emphatic no.

What’s left is a museum and memorial, built with good intentions, but atop a financial foundation that will likely depend on wealthy benefactors and the hope that throngs of people will show up and buy the $25 tickets.

It’s not exactly a healthy prognosis. And certainly, it’s not a debate that will soon end.

As Charles G. Wolf, who lost his wife in the collapse of the Twin Towers, noted, “This has taken on a life of its own.”

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