Civil War groups, business owners make the best of low turnout at Gettysburg

HANOVER, Pa. — Randy Phiel said he knew the Gettysburg commemorations were a success when he watched the re-enactment of the Wheatfield battle on June 5.

A couple hundred wool-clad re-enactors trudged through tall grass, creating a miniature version of the battle that happened 151 years ago, the event organizer said. The temperature was a comfortable 80-some degrees, and the only clouds in the sky were from the occasional cannon explosions.

Yes, this year's event attracted fewer visitors than usual, Phiel said, but it was still a good one.

This year's re-enactments drew about 1,000 re-enactors and 10,000 visitors on July 4 through 6 — a stark drop-off from the 11,000 re-enactors and 50,000 visitors who flocked to the area for the battle sesquicentennial, he said.

"It was quite a contrast from past years, but it was a good contrast," said Phiel, who works with the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee to organize the annual event.

It's also on the low end of the numbers attracted in a typical year, he said.

Several Civil War groups and businesses around Gettysburg reported similarly low turnouts during this year's 151st battle anniversary. Many, however, said they made the best of the situation.

Gettysburg National Military Park, which held its guided ranger programs on July 1 through 3, attracted an additional 5,500 guests — about 2,000 more than it did during the 149th battle anniversary, said park spokesperson Katie Lawhon.

Park officials did not expect to receive anywhere close to the 111,000 guests who visited during the 150th anniversary, she said, but new programs and the promise of smaller crowds helped draw in a good number this year.

Several downtown businesses also said they fared all right during the anniversary week.

Mike Torrao, the general manager at Blue & Gray Bar & Grill, said he made about 40 to 50 dozen wings and 130 burgers each day that weekend at his Lincoln Square business. It was a little slower than an average year, and much slower than the 150th, but between that and Bike Week, his staff stayed busy.

Across the street, T&S Clothing and Gifts benefited from the cooler nights by selling a surprising amount of long-sleeved apparel, said co-owner Susan Trostle. She was also happy with the number of T-shirts, mugs and other commemorative memorabilia, that was sold, especially during the after-dinner hours.

Another local business, the Federal Pointe Inn, has filled each of its 18 rooms during every battle anniversary for the past 20 years, said owner Peter Monahan. This year was no different.

While the rooms didn't fill up as fast as they have in past years — the last one wasn't booked until the day before the re-enactments started — he would have had to turn away any last-minute visitors looking for room in the inn.

Monahan said he expected this year to be relatively slow. Visitation picks up in five-year intervals, he said, and he and other long-time business owners in the borough have grown used that cycle — more than enough business during years like the 145th and 150th battle anniversaries and then a decline during the 146th and 151st.

Adams County's visitor bureau is also aware of the ebb and flow of business during the anniversaries, said Destination Gettysburg spokesperson Carl Whitehill. And as far as big years go, last year was probably the biggest in recent memory, with about 235,000 people visiting the county in July 2013.

"Everybody wants to compare things this year to 2013, and that's a little bit unfair," Whitehill said.

The battle anniversary events aren't the only attractions that bring tourists to Gettysburg. Other events during the summer, including Bike Week, which took place July 9 through 12, can bring as much as $50 million to the local economy each week. The battlefields also attract visitors throughout the season, with free ranger programs continuing into August.

"The summer's not over in Gettysburg," Whitehill said.

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