Butler County economy expects big bang from fireworks

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A convention of unprecedented size for Butler County promises to produce a lot of oohs and ahhs -- and not just for the expected infusion of millions of dollars into the local economy next summer.

The Pyrotechnics Guild International -- comprised of thousands of fireworks and rockets enthusiasts -- has signed an agreement to bring its annual convention to the county Aug. 10-17.

"There's no question that this is is the biggest thing that's ever come to Butler County," said Jack Cohen, director of the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau.

He and guild officials estimated the weeklong convention will bring between $5.5 million and $7 million to the local economy in terms of room rentals, food and supply purchases as an estimated 200,000 travel to Butler County for the convention. The past two annual Bantam Jeep Heritage Festivals attracted more than 60,000 people combined for the three-day events.

The guild has a current membership of about 3,500 people -- a number that is expected by the organization's officials to swell before the convention due to Butler County's easy access to East Coast population centers.

"There are a lot of enthusiasts who live on the East Coast who may not be willing to come to Nebraska for a convention but who will find Butler County easy to reach. Those people will decide to pay the membership dues and join up just so they can attend the convention," said Dan Creagan, president of the guild.

The last time the convention was held in the Eastern portion of the United States was in 1994 when it was held in New Castle.

Mr. Cohen said 1,000 hotel rooms in the county already have been blocked and the 350 campsites at Cooper's Lake Campground -- the 600-acre site in Slippery Rock that will host the convention -- are filled already. The county has about 2,000 beds for lease and Mr. Cohen said he won't be surprised if all end up filled.

In fact, his bureau has partnered with the Lawrence County tourism bureau to promote beds in that neighboring county.

"The economic impact will be far-reaching," Mr. Cohen said.

Food vendors will be tapped for the daily events at the campground, lumber and supplies will be purchased, restaurants and shops will be visited by families of the enthusiasts; even nonprofit groups will be asked to assist with parking for public events and those groups will be allowed to keep a portion of the parking fee paid by visitors.

"It's going to be a lot of fun and it's going to be very profitable for us," Mr. Cohen said.

He began constructing the groundwork for the convention five years ago when he attended one of the group's events in Wyoming. He said he realized that hosting the event in Butler County would be possible.

"It was the most impressive thing I had ever seen. Their shows are amazing," Mr. Cohen said. "They attract huge audiences, and their membership is so into it. I knew it would be something that would be a win-win."

Mr. Creagan, of Bellevue, Neb., said his members are excited about the new location in Butler County.

"We think it's going to be a great location," he said. He said the members are enthusiasts with noncommercial interests.

"We range from people who are interested in old-time fireworks to people who like to design shows to people who want to build rockets," he said.

One thing they have in common -- besides their interest in things that go "boom" -- is that they all spend money.

"We generally impact a local community by about $7 million. We bring in all kinds of people who want to shop and shoot fireworks. They'll buy gas, eat food, stay in hotels," he said.

"And then there's the infrastructure support we need -- like $200,000 in crazy things like railroad ties for buttressing mortars."

Mr. Creagan said not just anyplace can host such a convention.

The site has to have a minimum 3,000-foot circle to "shoot our product" and lots of space for big crowds.

"We produce shows like you've never seen before. We'll attract lots of people who'll want to watch," he said.

Public admission fees will be $20 for shows that will be held Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Shows will begin at dusk.

The purpose of the convention is to give members a chance to come together to learn from each other about industry techniques and to show off their own creative work, Mr. Creagan said.

Information about advanced ticket sales for the event will be available on Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau's website, www.VisitButlerCounty.com.

The agreement was announced Wednesday night at Cooper's Lake.

neigh_north

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.


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