Thunder in the Valley weathered COVID-19 challenges, will be back in 2022, organizers say

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Jul. 1—Early returns show that revenues will enable Thunder in the Valley organizers to at least come close to covering the $500,000 annual cost to hold the massive event, Lisa Rager, Visit Johnstown executive director, said Wednesday.

That in and of itself is a success, given the financial challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

Sponsorship losses were the biggest challenge for planners heading into 2021; a number of frequent partners either dropped out or cut back their contributions because of pandemic-related hardships, Rager said.

"We understand the challenges our local businesses are facing," she said. "Many couldn't offer the support they traditionally have in the past, but for us, we still had to find ways to make up that gap."

Next year's event dates are already set. Thunder in the Valley will return June 23-26, Rager said.

With help from favorable weather conditions all weekend, Thunder enthusiasts did their part, adding up to what she said were likely the largest crowds at the event in several years, Rager said.

The addition of $5 gate fees on Friday and Saturday at Peoples Natural Gas Park ended up being "a big help," too, Rager said. Nearly 8,000 people entered the venue's gates — income that will help cover the cost to bring in performers such as Hairball, Colt Ford and Whey Jennings, she said.

"That's a price we don't think anyone could balk at," she said of the $5 fee. "That's basically a cover charge someone would pay to go see a local band at a bar on a Friday night, but it certainly helped us this year when you add it up."

The rest of the event, including shows at Central Park, remained free to the public all weekend.

Among other positives, alcohol sales, another key income generator for the event, were up 15% from 2019, and merchandise sales, including T-shirts, were up even higher — 25%.

Rager said Visit Johnstown staff are still adding up expenses as final invoices arrive for the event, but there's no question many of them are higher, too.

Security an expense

Turning downtown Johnstown into a bikers' bliss involves renting dozens of tents, a stage, staff to keep activities running smoothly, tables and lines of portable restrooms. It also requires plenty of security to patrol the event.

Johnstown Police Capt. Chad Miller said the department assigned 10 extra officers to the downtown to patrol the event each day, including himself, Capt. Michael Plunkard and eight officers. The officers were split into different areas of the event, and two roamed on bicycles.

The city bills Visit Johnstown — previously the Greater Johnstown Convention and Visitors Bureau — for the staffing costs, including overtime pay.

"The way we bill them is no different than assigning an officer to a high school football game or any other event," Miller said. "The difference is that Thunder is so much bigger. It requires a bigger response."

Rager said the annual bill from the city is often $30,000 or more, but it's a necessary expense to ensure that tens of thousands of people who spend all weekend in the business district are safe and the event runs smoothly.

Interim City Manager Dan Penatzer said his office has not yet drawn up its invoice for last weekend's expenses, but was confident it won't be any higher for 2021 than it was before the pandemic. One reason: The city ended the practice of charging the visitors bureau to "bag" — or rent — metered parking spaces during the weekend, he said.

"It made no sense to do that. We should be working with them to make this a successful event, not trying to take advantage of it," Penatzer said.

Cambria County Special Emergency Response Team members were also at the event, as well as private security, which all carried separate costs.

The state police provided its horseback-mounted patrol unit to assist at the event. Trooper Cliff Greenfield, public information officer for Troop A, said additional troopers also worked shifts covering roadways throughout Cambria County because of the increased traffic in the area.

During Thunder, 90 traffic citations were issued, and four people were arrested for DUI.

"It's hard to tell how many of those traffic citations were Thunder-related ... but 90 is certainly an increase over a normal weekend," he said.

The event keeps police, fire and EMS busier, but the event is worth it, Miller said.

Rager said Thunder has a $20 million economic impact on the area — a ripple effect that extends far beyond the city — and that, in addition to introducing guests to the region who may have never visited Cambria County before, is the biggest reason to keep Thunder rolling.

"Our goal has never been for this to be a fundraiser," Rager said. "Our hope is that we can cover the costs to host this event each year."

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