BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Like homeowners battening down for a storm, city officials scrambled yesterday to make last-minute preparations in the event a federal government shutdown forced the closing of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which greets 250,000 visitors every October.
Of immediate concern was the Salem Regional Visitor Center on New Liberty Street, the first stop for many tourists. Last year, it handled more than 3,000 visitors a day.
Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, the city’s tourism office, was at the Visitor Center yesterday retrieving Haunted Happenings brochures and other literature in case the building was closed today. Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, was also carting out boxes of brochures.
In the event of a shutdown, volunteers were being recruited to staff a city-run information booth to be set up outside the Visitor Center where visitors could ask questions and pick up brochures.
“My concern is that people have a welcoming face upon their arrival,” Fox said. “We tell everyone to start their visit at the Visitor Center. After months of directing people that way, we want to make sure they don’t get there and find no one is there.”
On the more practical side, plans also were being made to replace the Visitor Center bathrooms.
“We have extra port-a-johnies waiting in the wings,” said Ellen Talkowsky, the city’s special projects coordinator.
Although there is no good time for a shutdown, October couldn’t be worse for Salem, which draws several hundred thousand visitors for its monthlong Halloween celebration, which kicks off Thursday with the annual Haunted Happenings parade. Many stop at the Visitor Center and tour the Salem Maritime Site.
In addition to the Visitor Center, the National Park Service planned to close Friendship, its replica 1797 tall ship, and public buildings at the historic site.
Furloughs were planned for the 32 Salem employees, plus 10 more at Saugus National Iron Works, which is jointly managed by the Park Service.
“Every single employee except two will be furloughed for the duration of the shutdown,” said Jonathan Parker, a spokesman for the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
Security and emergency services will be maintained, he said.
The Park Service contacted groups with scheduled visits to let them know the trips could be postponed. A fifth-grade class at the Witchcraft Heights School in Salem was scheduled to visit today.
“We have given the general message to school groups to watch the news and be aware this is a possibility,” Parker said. “If a shutdown does occur, the park would be unavailable for their programs.”
Parker stressed, however, that the park would remain open for members of the public who want to stroll the waterfront or walk along a wharf.
In related news, Salem Sound Coastwatch postponed a lecture in its climate change series scheduled for tonight at the Visitor Center due to the threat of a shutdown. The talk will be rescheduled.
Although park closures have been threatened in recent years, the last federal shutdown was in the mid-1990s.
“We’ve prepared for this scenario multiple times,” Parker said. “The timing (this year) is challenging for us, but it’s outside our sphere of control.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.