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April 19, 2016

Planning underway to make Philly center of America's 250th birthday

Local non-profit hopes city will be 'main campus' of nationwide Semiquincentennial celebration

On Tuesday, a who's who of local legislators — U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, U.S. Reps. Bob Brady, Chaka Fattah and Pat Meehan, the list goes on — announced the introduction of sister bills in both chambers of Congress that call for the creation of a commission to plan for the United States' 250th anniversary.

The country is slated to celebrate this notable birthday on July 4, 2026. A group dubbed the Semiquincentennial Commission (may we suggest the Quarter-grand Commission as a catchier alternative?) would, according to the legislation, meet at Independence Hall to prepare for the nationwide event.

Here are the details of the proposal:

• 32 members will comprise the Semiquincentennial Commission: four U.S. representatives, four U.S. senators, 16 private citizens (appointed by Congress), and four people who formerly served on select federal posts, such as secretary of state, attorney general and librarian of congress.

• While the group will only meet in Philly, they'll be planning events for the entire country, with a focus on the 13 original colonies and cities with historical significance, like Boston, New York and Charlotte.

• The commission will prepare literature about the history and culture of the American Revolution; organize conferences and seminars on the history of the colonies; create of educational centers for Semiquincentennial events, including mobile exhibits; and plan ceremonies and celebrations.

• A time capsule will be made and filled with miscellaneous memorabilia. It will be buried at Independence Hall and opened on the country's 500th birthday in 2276.

While prepping for an event 10 years in advance may seem like a bit much, precedent suggests otherwise — and doesn't necessarily equal results.

The 1976 Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia, by many accounts, was a flop despite planning beginning more than a decade beforehand. Attendance was lower than expected, costs outweighed long-term benefits and, in general, the nation was unimpressed with the city's final product.

As a man trying to make Philly the top destination for the year-long party notes, events of this scale tend to take time to develop. 

"An obvious reference is that when Philadelphia started its planning (its bid) for the 2016 Olympics, the planning process started in 2004," said Jon Grabelle Herrmann, executive director for USA250.

USA250 is a local nonprofit trying to make Philly "rekindle its historical role" as the center of the country's 250th birthday, Herrmann said. 

While the proposed commission by lawmakers is meant to organize national leaders for the Semiquincentennial, USA250 is working on a pitch to show why there's value in having a central destination for millions of Americans to flock to in 2026.

"Our model is not to propose a super-expensive site like you do for an Olympic Village," but instead, to "utilize existing infrastructure," such as the city's many historical landmarks, Herrmann said. 

He disputes the common notion that 1976 was a debacle, noting that several important tourists destinations, like the African American Museum and Independence Seaport Museum, were birthed as part of the planning process for the Bicentennial. 

However, he said, the preparations then did not intend to make Philly the "main campus" — as the group's website puts it — for the entire country like they are doing now. 

The group plans to have their official proposal ready to present to Congress sometime in the next two years. More information can be found on USA250's website.

USA250 from History Making Productions on Vimeo.