The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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June 29, 2013

Economic stimulus: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Thunder are a boon to area businesses

— With a loud inescapable rumble, waves of motorcycle riders annually take over Johnstown during Thunder in the Valley, spending money at beer stands and merchandise shops. In comparison, over the past two years, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses have quietly visited the region around the same time, and, during their breaks from religious activities, supported local sit-down restaurants and made in-kind contributions to the Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

The groups are strikingly different: Tattooed, leather-clad Harley-Davidson bikers and primly dressed, spiritually devoted families.

But together, they help make June a profitable month for local restaurants, stores and hotels.

“This is what travel and tourism promotion is all about,” said Lisa Rager, executive director of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Approximately 4,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently in the region for a district convention that is scheduled to end Sunday. Church members have attended services in the arena during three separate weekends, June 7-9, 14-16 and 28-30. They have come from within a five-hour radius of Johnstown, including points in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland.

Along with paying rent, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have repaired, cleaned and enhanced the arena.

In 2012, the first of five consecutive years the organization is scheduled to hold its convention in the city, worshippers made more than $50,000 of in-kind contributions, ranging from building access steps to removing weeds from sidewalks. They have done work both before and during this year’s convention. After the event, volunteers plan to install a dividing wall between the arena’s luxury suites and regular seats.

“That’s a way of life for us,” said Kevin Gensler, a Jehovah’s Witnesses news service overseer. “We represent what we consider the one true God. As part of that, we want our actions to speak louder than words.”

Worshippers have supported businesses throughout the region, spending what Rager estimated could be $1 million.

“The economic impact is an economic impact that stays in the county because these are brick-and-mortar, taxpaying businesses,” said Tom Grenell, the arena’s acting general manager. “These are not event-based businesses that are gone when the event goes. These are the people that are employing county jobs, county resources and putting tax dollars into the local municipalities. These are all things that stay here.”

Unlike the noise and traffic jams associated with Thunder, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have come into town with almost no disruption.

“What you see is an economic boon with little to no intrusion to the common residents,” said Grenell.

The church members’ generally quiet and polite presence has endeared them to community leaders and business owners.

“It has been wonderful,” said City Manager Kristen Denne. “They have been great visitors to have in Johnstown. I consider them all honorary citizens.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses organizers even offered to skip the weekend of June 20-23 in order to avoid any conflict with the 16th annual Thunder in the Valley.

The motorcycle rally included events as diverse as a Molly Hatchet concert, pancake breakfasts, wet T-shirt contests, hill climbs and a breast cancer awareness fundraiser. Local stores and visiting vendors alike financially benefited from the event.

“I wouldn’t blink an eye at the fact Thunder could generate $20 million in direct visitor spending,” said Rager.

Through a spokesperson, Tom Zepka Sr., owner of Zepka Harley-Davidson in Richland Township, called the rally “our Christmas in June.”

Although the Thunder and Jehovah’s Witnesses crowds are certainly different, participants do support some of the same establishments, especially restaurants and hotels.

Josh Gibson, owner of the downtown Johnstown Subway restaurant and two other locations in Cambria County, estimates his businesses see a 50 to 75 percent sales increase during Thunder in the Valley, compared with other weeks. His business doubles on Fridays and Saturdays when the Jehovah’s Witnesses are in the region.

“It’s a lot of fun with Thunder in the Valley,” said Gibson. “We get to see a lot of different folks. ... The Jehovah’s Witnesses are always very well-behaved and treat my staff very well.”

The Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown and Holiday Inn Express on Scalp Avenue were two of the area’s crowded hotels during the past few weekends.

“For our properties, they’re all good guests,” said Melissa Radovanic, sales and marketing director for Crown American Hotels, which owns the local Holiday Inns. “We generally have no problem with Thunder in the Valley guests. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are pleasant guests.”

Radovanic said this was a record-setting Thunder year for the downtown Holiday Inn, based upon overnight stays and sales at the hotel’s restaurant, Harrigan’s Cafe & Wine Deck.

“It was great,” Radovanic said.

Thunder and the Jehovah’s Witnesses conventions combine to put approximately $50,000 directly into Johnstown’s coffers through general fund permit fees, parking and the mercantile tax, according to the city’s finance director, Carlos Gunby.

The CVB also receives money from the hotel tax, which is then used to promote more tourism.

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