​ NRA convention expected to draw 80,000 to Indy

5th Apr 2019

Credit Source: Indystar, by Chris Sikich

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The proposal features major hotels, expanded convention center on Downtown Indianapolis' Pan Am Plaza. Matt Kryger, IndyStar

The National Rifle Association expects to draw up to 80,000 members later this month to Indianapolis for its annual convention, billed as "15 acres of guns and gear."

"It's an economic win when we host the NRA and it's a win for the tourism workforce," said Chris Gahl, senior vice president of marketing and communications at Visit Indy.

The NRA's 148th annual convention will be April 26-28 at the Indiana Convention Center. Tourism officials expect all of those gun enthusiasts to spend $35.3 million on hotels, restaurants, bars and other amenities.

The convention, which includes more than 800 exhibitors, will be set up throughout the 1.2 million-square foot convention center and Lucas Oil Stadium.

The event also attracts local and national politicians, country music stars, celebrity gun-rights activists, professional hunters as well as protesters critical of the group's avid defense of gun-rights laws.

"Though we don't know anything for certain," Gahl hinted, "past NRA conventions have drawn sitting presidents and sitting vice presidents and other really high profile speakers."

Both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the 2018 convention in Dallas. NRA officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Dallas convention drew 87,000, the NRA's largest annual meeting. That year, the city set up "Free Speech Zones" for protesters. The father of one of the teenagers who died in the Parkland school shooting called for gun reform from a stage set up four blocks from the convention.

Gahl said Indy also anticipates setting up areas for dissenters, something he said the NRA encourages cities to do. 

The NRA first hosted a convention in Indy in 2014, an event that also drew gun-control activists. At the time, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department reported no troubles related to the convention.

"We recognize that some conventions are polarizing to the public," Gahl said, "and certainly this is one high-profile convention that falls into that genre of events. But when we say Indy welcomes all, we cannot be selective in who we welcome to the city. We have to put Hoosier hospitality first."

The NRA drew 75,000 to Indy in 2014. Within months of that event's conclusion, the NRA booked the city for this year and 2023.

Tourism officials anticipate the NRA will have the largest attendance at the convention center this year, but the fifth largest economic impact, behind the Performance Racing Industry at $65.1 million, Gen Con at $56.5 million, USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championships at $42.8 million at the FFA at $39 million.

Those estimates are based on a number of factors, including special events, the length of the convention and how far people travel.

Gahl said the NRA is discussing booking its convention beyond 2023 in Indy but is keeping an eye on the potential for an 80,000-square foot expansion of the convention center. He said the NRA may outgrow the current space in the coming years.

State lawmakers are considering intricate legislation that would create ways to pay for a proposed 25-year lease extension for the Indiana Pacers, a $150 million professional soccer stadium and the $120 million expansion of the Indiana Convention Center.

To pay for the expansion, Indianapolis proposes to use taxes generated from a proposed 38-floor, 800-room Hilton Signia tower and an adjacent 600-room sister hotel on Pan Am Plaza.

Local hoteliers, though, led by the owner of the JW Marriott, say there's not enough business in Indy for so many hotel rooms and are trying to stop the expansion.

Star reporter Emma Kate Fittes contributed to this story. Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.