Alan Butkovitz’s Damning Study of the Pope’s Visit Is Misleading

He says business was abysmal during the papal visit. But his survey is flawed.

Business was godawful in Philadelphia during the papal visit, according to a new “economic impact study” by City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

Butkovitz found that 85 percent of the hotels, restaurants and retail stores that his office surveyed “said that revenue this September compared to prior Septembers was either significantly or somewhat less than average.”

Butkovitz added in a statement, “None of the customers that typically frequent these businesses were around, not only on the weekend, but were absent the week leading up to the papal visit.”

Butkovitz’s study has at least one major problem, though. His office surveyed only 108 companies located in the so-called “traffic box” — a relatively small area in Philadelphia where incoming traffic was banned during Pope Francis’ trip.

To get a real understanding of how the papal visit affected Philly, you’d have to survey businesses throughout the entire region. That’s because plenty of pilgrims booked hotel rooms, ate at restaurants, used transportation services, and shopped at stores outside of the traffic box — probably more than they did inside the traffic box, in fact, according to local economist Kevin Gillen.

“People stayed in hotels and B&Bs outside of the traffic box, so excluding that cuts out a huge piece of the pie, if not most of the pie,” said Gillen. “Once people are in the traffic box, what did they do? They spent money on a bottle of water. Maybe they bought some souvenirs. A lot of businesses in that area, I would imagine, would also be closed.”

It’s also worth noting that there are a total of 12,000 businesses in the traffic box, according to the Nutter administration.

Butkovitz did not respond to a request for comment.

To be sure, plenty of businesses in Philadelphia, particularly those in the restaurant industry, suffered during the papal visit. The losses they incurred are very real, and very unfortunate, for all the servers, bartenders, bus boys, managers and owners involved. And it seems that at least some of that pain could have been avoided if Mayor Michael Nutter had done a better job of being honest with residents and business about what to expect.

So the anecdotes that Butkovitz collected from local businesses are important. But they’re just that: anecdotes.