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Keystone Crossroads: The Pope Isn't The Only Big Act In Pennsylvania

Gene J. Puskar
AP Photo

In case you hadn't heard, the Pope is coming to Philadelphia and the whole city is a bit on edge.

Mayor Michael Nutter has said that "this will be the largest event in the city of Philadelphia in modern history."

The city is expecting as many as 1.5 million visitors — doubling the city's population for the weekend of September 25-26. This could top even the most important events in Philadelphia's history, like Pope John Paul II's visit in 1979 or the Republican National Convention in 2000. Nutter says it could be "possibly larger than the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies World Series parade."

Obviously, this is serious stuff, and Philadelphia has a right to freak out. It's hard to imagine any place doubling its population with grace and class, right?

Oh, except two weeks ago, when Williamsport, a city of 30,000, did just that.

"It's estimated that somewhere around 80 to 90,000 people came in to experience the Little League World Series," says Jason Fink, executive director of the Lycoming County Visitors Bureau.

Fink says that the U.S. Championship game alone saw 45,000 attendees. That means that for every person in town, there was one and a half people in the stadium that day. It may not surprise you to hear that Williamsport isn't built to support that many people.

"Within Lycoming County, we have somewhere around 1,500 to 1,700 hotel rooms," says Fink. "We can't house all of those people. You see people staying within a 60 mile radius of the county."

Doubling, nay, tripling the size of the town for a week is nothing but good news in Williamsport. Hotels, restaurants and retailers do most of their annual business during this one event each year.

And Williamsport isn't alone. Every February 2nd, a groundhog draws 25,000 tourists to Punxsutawney, a borough of 5,000. You want to talk local to visitor ratio, Philly? That's 1:5.

"We have a couple of hotels in Punxy and they're always booked solid," says Katie Donald, executive director of the Groundhog Club. "If you want one for this coming year, you're probably not going to find it in Punxy. But you could book for 2017."

While dealing with a quintupling of the town for a weekend isn't easy, Punxsutawney sees the opportunity that they have in that overgrown hamster, and they capitalize on it.

"Punxsutawney Phil is definitely the largest draw we have and we're fortunate to have him in our community," says Donald.

And then, of course, there's Penn State. Six or seven times in a three month period, State College explodes.

"We become the third largest city in Pennsylvania," says Captain Matt Wilson of the State College Police Department. "I've heard that statement made, I don't have any statistics to back that up, but that's what I hear. I believe that there are a lot of people that come here for a football game."

Luckily, State College has done this so many times, they've got it down to a science. All the surrounding boroughs contribute emergency responders — and for big games, even the State Police show up. And yes, if you ask nicely, they'll let you take a selfie with the horse.

If you hear of any pregnant ladies in Philly, worried about getting to the hospital during the Pope's visit...take a lesson from State College. Wilson says they can get anyone to the hospital, no problem.

"Our traffic unit officers will part the seas for them."

How positively biblical.

These events might not bring a million and a half people and high-level security concerns, but they're no less important because of that. Katie Donald, of the Groundhog Club, says that one weekend in February keeps the town afloat the rest of the year. And it doesn't stop there.

"We expand the economic impact to the region," she says. "So, It's really great for the whole entire region."

So, keep the faith, Philadelphia: unlike these events, the Pope's visit isn't the only thing that draws people to your city. I mean, they have to get cheese steaks somewhere, right?

Eleanor Klibanoff was WPSU's reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide reporting collaboration that covers the problems and solutions facing Pennsylvania's cities. Previously, Eleanor was a Kroc Fellow at NPR in DC. She worked on the global health blog and Weekend Edition, reported for the National desk and spent three months at member station KCUR in Kansas City. Before that, she covered abortion politics in Nicaragua and El Salvador, two of the seven countries in the world that completely ban the procedure. She's written for Atlanta Magazine, The Nicaragua Dispatch and Radio Free Europe.
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