The Jehovah's Witnesses have since 2005 spent several quiet weekends each summer at conventions in the Sovereign Center, without any of the fanfare given the concert idols and hockey giants normally associated with a sports/entertainment complex.
As a result, they are responsible for half the downtown civic center's $254 million economic impact over its first decade.
That's the surprise coming out of a study released last week by Dr. Lolita A. Paff, associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks.
The 225,000 Jehovah's Witnesses who spent three days each at the conventions also spent nearly $111 million on gasoline, hotels (1,200 rooms a night), shopping and meals outside the arena from 2005 through 2011, Paff's report said.
Nearly $98 million of that spending was on shopping, especially at the VF Outlets, Paff said.
The outside spending is in addition to the break-even fees the Jehovah's Witnesses paid the arena, and their annual local volunteer work projects, such as painting city crosswalks and helping to install the security cameras in Reading Parking Authority garages.
Paff's report shows the arena and the Sovereign Performing Arts Center (the refurbished Rajah Theatre) brought in $254 million in direct spending during their first decade, including $56 million in payroll, purchase of goods and services, charitable giving by the venues, taxes and parking fees.
But the total 4.5 million patrons of the two venues also spent $198 million on outside meals, hotels, gasoline and shopping, in addition to the cost of tickets and meals on site.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' spending was 55 percent of all outside spending by all visitors.
By contrast, sports fans spent only $28.7 million for meals, gasoline, hotels and shopping, or 14 percent of the total. The arena at its heart is a hockey rink, with a wooden floor temporarily laid over its ice to accommodate concerts and family shows.
"It shows the impact of the Jehovah's Witnesses to the community," said Zane Collings, civic center general manager, who acknowledged the totals surprised him. "The report solidifies how beneficial it has been."
It also shows the importance of having a variety of events, because no one event makes or breaks the budget and no one event appeals to everyone, he said.
Center of intention
If the conventions have been so profitable to the community, should the Sovereign Center seek more of the same?
"It depends on the purpose of the center," Paff said. "If the primary focus is economic impact, then the numbers suggest that conventions may be a good way to increase the center's economic impact.
"However, conventions do not add to the quality of life aspects that the current mix of events provides."
The Berks County Convention Center Authority paid Paff $2,500 for the study.
It's based on hundreds of questionnaires filled out by event attendees, who said how much they spent, on what, and whether they spent that amount in Berks only because they were coming to an event.
One thing the study did not do is estimate the ripple effect: how much of that $254 million was re-spent by the businesses for more goods and services, and then spent a third time. Some studies use so-called multipliers, multiplying the direct spending by an assumed amount, to calculate the ripple effect.
Paff said the use of multipliers is increasingly controversial and her data is far more credible without them, especially since she also used very conservative assumptions, such as calculating attendance by how many patrons actually went through the turnstiles, rather than by ticket sales, to reach her numbers.
"Sponsored research should be viewed with a skeptical eye," she said. "There is always a temptation to shade the results to please the client.
"However, I strongly believe that inflated values achieved from suspect estimation procedures weaken the value of the report more than they help make a case for how valuable the Sovereign Center facilities are to Berks County."
Contact Don Spatz: 610-371-5027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.