There we were — a couple of National Rifle Association guys, a visitors bureau guy and me — gathered at a pub table in the lobby of the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg.
In bustles Eric Papenfuse, the newly minted mayor of Harrisburg. (This is not entirely surprising. It’s his bookstore, after all.)
Papenfuse exchanges hearty handshakes with one and all, then comes to the table and launches into a detailed account of the careful planning by city leaders to ensure that they’re ready for this weekend.
Why? The NRA is in town, and they’re bringing their friends.
The NRA is sponsoring the new Great American Outdoor Show at the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex, beginning Saturday and running through Feb. 9.
About 200,000 people are expected, Jeremy Greene, the NRA’s director of marketing and media relations, explained after Papenfuse departed. They will visit shooting, hunting, fishing and outdoor sports exhibits spread across the 650,000-square-foot complex — an event so sprawling, organizers created an app to help visitors navigate it. (Search “GAOS” in the App Store to find it.)
The event’s a very big deal, said Rick Dunlap of the Hershey Harrisburg Visitors Bureau. The impact when the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show didn’t arrive last year — an estimated $44 million loss to the local economy — is well documented.
Less well reported may be this: When the Eastern Outdoors Show canceled, Dunlap said, 22 hotels around the capital went from being booked to being empty — overnight. Within the industry, rumors swirled about layoffs. Exactly how many is unclear, but at least one hotel let go five workers just because of the drop in business, Dunlap said.
So, you can see why Papenfuse was pleased to see the NRA guys ensconced in his bookstore.
The memory of last year’s fiasco stings. It began, tragically, with the Dec. 14 2012, slaughter of school children in Newtown, Conn. A few weeks later, with the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show looming, promoter Reed Exhibitions announced that assault rifles would not be welcome.
That didn’t sit well with vendors — and not just those who planned to display firearms. Eventually 300 or so pulled out of the show, calling the assault rifle ban a violation of Second Amendment rights.
Those vendors took a costly stand, Greene said. “You have businesses that did most of their revenue at the previous show,” he said.
Those vendors are now happy that the NRA is involved, and they’re happier for a chance to sell their wares again. More than 1,000 vendors are expected this weekend.
Dunlap took pains to explain that the NRA was not really a leader in last year’s boycott.
It did, however, fully support it, Greene said.
The collapse of the 2013 show led to a rush of competitors eager to fill the void. The NRA won with a vision of using its brand to turn the show into an even bigger event.
“We came with the full plan ... to make this the premiere, largest outdoor show in the country,” Greene said. “We will bring in a national audience.”
The organization — which is paying the state Department of Agriculture at least $665,000 for use of the Farm Show complex — has a head start. The NRA boasts 5 million members — about 900,000 of whom live within a 300-mile radius of Harrisburg.
“Pennsylvania is a great state for the outdoor community,” Greene said.
The NRA’s political positions can be divisive, but the organization appears eager to use this show to highlight its more traditional role in the outdoors community.
That should be good news for outdoors enthusiasts, who undoubtedly are eager to forget last year’s debacle.