Jim & Jimmies

Bikers gather at Jim & Jimmies Bar in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County, during the 22nd Annual Thunder in the Valley motorcycle rally in Johnstown, PA., Friday, June 21, 2019.

Motorcycle riders fill up tanks at local gas stations. Vendors pay fees to set up booths. Out-of-town visitors rent hotel rooms. Area residents grab dinner and drinks. Visit Johnstown spends money to rent properties and maintain grounds.

Together, they and others who participate in Thunder in the Valley pump an estimated $15 million to $20 million annually into the region’s economy during four days in June.

But, in 2020, that revenue is lost.

In April, Visit Johnstown canceled Thunder in the Valley due to uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, come June 25-28, the motorcycles will not rumble throughout the hills and city as expected. Instead, local small businesses will deal with substantial hits to their anticipated income streams.

“It is going to be hard to recapture those dollars in the economy in any way, shape or form I think,” said Lisa Rager, executive director of Visit Johnstown, formerly the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

With no riders coming to town, businesses will lose income needed to pay employees and the economically distressed city will miss out on tax revenue.

“When you look at everything, it’s just kind of like dropping a pebble in the water and then there’s a ripple effect that goes all the way down through,” Rager said.

Direct impact

At night, after all the music, drinking, eating and riding is done, temporary workers from The Sargent’s Group clean up the grounds in downtown Johnstown, picking up garbage, rearranging seats and wiping down surfaces.

Those 50 or so workers won’t be getting paid this year.

“A lot of people depend on Thunder in the Valley because a lot of people work it year after year after year,” said Sally Sargent, the group’s owner. “It’s really important. Some people that may not necessarily be able to find work other places, especially due to the economic conditions, really look forward to the income from Thunder. It’s a shame. It really is.”

Another local business, Kamzik Septic Service, provides and maintains the approximately 60 Port-A-Johns used by guests.

“It’s going to definitely hurt us,” said Craig Gibson, who owns the service. “That’s a big event. That’s probably one of the biggest events Johnstown has as far as toilets. We look forward to that every year.”

Kamzik Septic Service and The Sargent’s Group are among the businesses paid directly by Visit Johnstown, which spends about $250,000 from doing promotional work and hiring entertainment to making sure the grounds are maintained and providing security.

“It’s pretty substantial from that standpoint,” Rager said, “just with what we spend and then how that kind of multiplies and filters through the local economy.” 

Indirect impact 

Restaurants, bars, licensed vendors and nonprofits doing fundraisers generate revenue by selling food and drinks to the thousands of motorcycle riders and visitors.

Amy Bosnick, co-owner of Jim & Jimmies on Somerset Pike, said losing the Thunder crowd will cause a major financial hit, likely tens of thousands of dollars.

“We’re going to lose a lot of business,” Bosnick said. “June is usually our biggest month of the year. We count on all of our T-shirts for advertising throughout the year. It gives us a time to get new customers that will come back and visit us throughout the year. We’ve lost a lot.”

Missing out on Thunder in the Valley revenue adds to the uncertainty faced by dining establishments, such as Jim & Jimmies, during coronavirus restrictions.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Bosnick said. “You put your heart and soul into something for 10 years to try to run a good business and create a place where people want to come and have fun. And it goes up in a ball of flames, in the blink of an eye.”

Bars and restaurants in Ebensburg, along with local clubs and nonprofits, will suffer a similar loss with the cancellation of Wheels & Wings, the annual community-wide event centered around motorcycles and chicken wings that was scheduled to take place on June 25.

“It’s disappointing and not just for us, for the whole community, because we know that the local restaurants and the civic organizations, like the Moose, and the Legion, the VFW, that’s a big event for the whole town, for the fire hall, for the community in general,” said Danea Koss, community development director of the Ebensburg Main Street Partnership, which hosts the event that it uses as a fundraiser.

“We all are going to take a hit this year,” Koss said. “It’s just the way things are right now. There’s nothing we can do about it.

“The safety of our residents and our visitors takes precedence.” 

Hospitality takes a hit 

About 260 combined rooms at the Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown and Holiday Inn Express in Richland Township are usually filled during Thunder.

“The loss of Thunder in the Valley has a significant impact on our two hotels, specifically the Holiday Inn in downtown Johnstown,” said Melissa Radovanic, director of marketing and community relations for Crown American Associates, which owns the properties. “Every year that Thunder has existed, both of our hotels have sold out many months in advance. The downtown property also reaps the benefit of the bikers when they’re coming back at the end of the day to have a late-night snack or a drink.

“And so, with the overnight rooms and the food and beverage business, the loss is pretty significant.”

Thunder’s cancellation will result in about $500,000 in lost revenue for Crown, which is “something that the hotels will not be able to recover from,” Radovanic said.

Hotels in Cambria County also charge a 5% lodging tax, the majority of which goes to fund Visit Johnstown, providing about $600,000 annually for the organization’s budget.

“I don’t see, unfortunately, those funds being increased anytime soon, because the long-term outlook for travel is still very light for many more months, so it has a huge impact on the Convention and Visitors Bureau and what they can still promote for tourism as 2020 goes on,” said Radovanic, a member of Visit Johnstown’s board.

As a result of the drastic decrease in funding from the lodging tax, Visit Johnstown laid off five of its six employees in April.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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