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June 29, 2014

Parade draws crowd: Impact varies for vendors, businesses

JOHNSTOWN — Although Johnstowners are out in droves before and during Thunder in the Valley’s Grand Parade, small local shops can have a tough time capturing that influx of potential customers floating around the Main Street storefronts.

Sohil Ghodasara, co-owner of downtown’s Smoke City tobacco store, said often, Thunder is no lightning strike. He said he might consider taking a vacation around this time next year.

The slow going could be the result of cramped space downtown and the event’s growth in the region, he said – several spin-off and sister rallies in Windber, Ebensburg and Richland Township have thinly spread crowds that were once concentrated around the Central Park gazebo or Market Street.

“They have more room, they have more parking, more vendors,” he said, adding that downtown seems to be a less enticing destination. “Better (bands) are being put by the Train Station or the Biker Mall.”

But could the Greater Johnstown Convention and Visitors Bureau really bring Foghat to Central Park?

“Then it would be hard for them to fit all the people in,” he conceded. “I don’t blame them. They’re doing the best thing they can do.

“We just have to hope more people come here and pass through. The downtown parade on Saturday is a good event that brings a lot of people out.”

Although the parade provided an hour’s worth of swelling traffic, once Saturday’s festivities wrapped up, that’s the end of the road for Smoke City. Ghodasara said Sunday is a traditionally “dead” day, as most vendors and revelers are just looking to pack up and head home.

One pass through any Thunder thoroughfare will likely fill the nostrils with the rich zest of cigar smoke – surely Smoke City’s inventory would be enough to draw in rolled tobacco aficionados, right? Ghodasara said, however, that an out-of-state vendor, whose ads are featured in the Thunder 2014 program book, is selling stogies a la carte.

Mobility allowed them to set up shop near the lively Train Station. Meanwhile, Ghodasara can’t afford to keep his store running if he plunks down for vendor booth rental and operating costs associated with having a presence in the thick of the action, he said.

But there’s another side to the coin. Food Network-famed sandwich shop Chip-n-Wich rolled into town from Midland, Michigan. It set up just across Main Street from Smoke City.

Although the business has local origins – between two brothers born and raised in Johnstown – it’s not a staple of regional cuisine. The business’ homegrown roots helped them drum up much interest for Thunder weekend, however.

“(We had a) huge hit ... huge hit,” said co-owner Corey Jones.

“We’ve been getting great response here at Thunder, so we’re going to come back. Everybody loves it.”

Jones said since returning home, Chip-n-Wich has tried to make use of as many locally provided ingredients as possible. Its homemade barbecue sauce, the top seller with the Michigan customers, is made in town by his brother. Playing that local angle was the key to their success, he said – kind of ironic.

“We spread the word on social media,” he said. “We came here specifically because people wanted us to come here.

“I think we’re going to come back a lot more often now.”

While many who bring their energy and pocketbooks to Thunder clamor for something new, can they be expected to just grab a grinder from Em’s Sub Shop?

Ghodasara said if Thunder weekend ends up being a dud, it’s mostly due to unfortunate circumstance and foreign competition – he’s resigned to the fact that the CVB has bigger figures to crunch.

“To them, at the end of the day, it’s all about rent and the income,” he said.

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.

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