No one can say that the closing of Hara Arena came as a “shock”, or that it even qualifies as “news”. The future of the facility has been questionable for more than a decade. It would be impossible for recent visitors to have not noticed the crumbling structure and its surroundings. Still, I am deeply saddened that the Dayton Hamvention will no longer be conducted at Hara Arena.
My first visit took place in 1976 when my friend and high school teacher invited me to tag along on a Saturday. We were working together on a QST project – a home brewed frequency counter – and needed parts that weren’t otherwise easy to obtain.
I fell in love with Hamvention that year and the following year, I returned with my girlfriend. Looking back, it couldn’t have been much of a “date” for her, but I suppose it wasn’t all bad – she married me the year after that.
Since then, I’ve attended Hamvention at Hara thirty-five times. It’s been an annual tradition for me like it has for so many others. I’m deeply indebted to Hamvention for having played a central role in keeping me enthused about the hobby. Some years family and career required more attention in ways that diverted me from radio. But every year, faithfully, the return to Hara Arena would re-kindle the flame of passion for radio that has burned in me since I built my first crystal radio.
Don’t kid yourself. I’ve read your QRZ bios. Most of you got involved in amateur radio at a young age like I did, but then dropped out, sometimes for decades, only to rediscover your passion later in life – with regrets for the time you lost. I got in the hobby and never got out. I’ve never gone months or years without being radio active. For nearly forty years. And much of the credit for that goes to Hamvention and the buzz it created in the months leading up to it, the big weekend, and then the afterglow for months after the gates had closed.
Hamvention has been a big part of my ham radio life. I once took a job in January, telling my new employer that I needed a long weekend off in May. He agreed but as Hamvention weekend approached he changed his mind, told me I couldn’t have those dates off work. I quit. Hamvention was too important to me to let a job get in the way.
Perhaps then you will understand why when someone writes a blog post about the “decrepit” facility Hara Arena has become, I get my back up. Tweets that poke fun of the event or the facilities often leave me seething and there have been many (many, many, many) times that I’ve crafted the response, “fuck off and die”, before taking a deep breath, deleting that profanity, and responding in kinder fashion – defending the event in the face of torrents of criticism.
When some hams talk about Hamvention they propagate myths. The most laughable being this, “If Hamvention would move to a more modern facility, more people would attend”. This reveals a level of naïveté and ignorance not compatible with our technical service.
Hamvention has seen over 33,000 attendees in a single year – at Hara Arena – how many MORE people could possibly attend? Last year, despite the lousy bathroom situation, lack of HVAC in the meeting rooms, and crumbling asphalt in the flea-market, attendance topped 25,000.
How much more can we expect a newer facility to attract? If there have been radio enthusiasts staying home because of the condition of Hara Arena, they are a well-kept secret or a tiny minority. Or both. It’s simply ignorance that asserts that people are staying away by the thousands because the bathrooms at Hara don’t smell dainty fresh.
And since I’m ranting about attendance, Hamvention is the largest such event in the world. End of story. Orlando is wonderful. I’ve been there twice. It’s a family vacation destination that takes place in a warm climate at the end of a long, hard winter. Why every ham doesn’t go there is a mystery to me. But it still doesn’t come close to the attendance of Hamvention. Friedrichshafen, the big European ham radio convention takes place in an ultra-modern facility in a beautiful part of Germany yet it attracts 10,000 fewer visitors than Dayton.
The other insane notion that has made the rounds in recent years is this: “Why don’t they move the Dayton Hamvention to Cincinnati, or Louisville, or maybe even Las Vegas?” Once again, I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out why the Dayton Amateur Radio Association might not want to hold their annual event in Nevada.
But this suggestion leaves me more sad than angry because it reveals an even deeper ignorance about the work involved in pulling off the largest ham radio show on the planet.
Hamvention requires hundreds of volunteers to pull it off. It’s not just selling tickets the day of the event. These volunteers take two weeks off after one Hamvention before beginning work on the next. It’s a year-long passion play for these volunteers and the result of their tireless effort is the success that is Hamvention.
I frequently tell those who suggest the event be held in their hometown that all they have to do is organize a hamfest and get 30,000 people to show-up, then they can be number one. Easy, huh?
So what does the move to a new facility mean and how will it compare?
I’m certain that many Hamvention organizers are losing sleep over that question right now. Though they have always had contingency plans to quickly move the event if the need ever arose, actually pulling it off won’t be easy. You can plan all you want for a tornado but until the winds begin to blow it’s not “real”.
The big problem here is the BIG problem.
How many modern facilities are available that can accommodate 25 or 30 thousand attendees for three days? How many of those facilities have room for the largest radio flea-market in the world? Parking, proximity to airports and enough hotel rooms. And how many of those are available for $8 per person, per day?
The $21 million dollar question is how many of those will be willing to sign a long-term agreement?
That’s where Hara Arena was perfect. Hamvention took place at the same address annually for more than fifty years. After the first show at Hara, the event never moved. Dates did. The weather changed. People changed. Technology changed. The location did not. I’m not even sure buildings in the United States are built to last fifty years any more?
I can assert with supreme confidence that wherever Hamvention moves, there’s not a snowballs chance in hell that it will still be there in 50 years.
And that means Hamvention will move again. And again. And since words don’t cost much, “again”. The logistics of finding a new venue for that many people more than a few times will eventually erode attendance and fray organizers nerves.
Wherever it lands, the 2017 show will probably attract another sizable audience. After all, it’s Dayton, where else would serious radio enthusiasts congregate in May? Besides, there will be bragging rights. Who doesn’t want to be able to say that they attended the first post-Hara Hamvention in history?
The old arena is falling apart. It needs to be razed. I understand that as well as the haters. But I see something else at work here. This move is necessary and inevitable but it’s also a marker buoy warning that the age of the large hamfest is coming to an end.
I hope what follows will be as enjoyable, but it probably won’t.
My generation passes the torch to a new generation of radio amateurs who will make their own fun and conduct the business of hobby radio how they see fit.
The trajectory of these kinds of changes informs us that the future will be more efficient. No one need attend a sweaty hamfest when they can buy anything they need with one-click online and enjoy driveway delivery by drone.
Nothing is forever. Traditions end. Besides, who really wants to spend one long weekend in May rubbing elbows with DX legends, laying hands on the latest gadgets, meeting old friends and making new ones — if the bathrooms aren’t going to smell dainty fresh?