Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hamvention Musings -- or, Why the hell is it held in Dayton?

For the past five years, I have been an annual attendee of the Dayton Hamvention, the largest ham radio convention in the world. Hamvention is held at the Hara Arena in Trotwood, Ohio, just north of Dayton, and is sponsored by the Dayton Amateur Radio Association. This year marked the 57th Hamvention, and although attendance was nowhere near the record this year (33,669 in 1993), the initial estimates by DARA show that this year was the best out of the last five years.

Many hams and non-hams alike ask me a number of questions about this convention. Most common is, "Why Dayton?" This simple question begs a simple answer, but the asker of the question obviously means to imply that Dayton isn't really the best place to have a convention. Specifically, those who know will imply that the Hara Arena isn't really the best place to have a convention.

Well, firstly, having the Hamvention in Dayton is a tradition and has been for 56 years. But, most importantly, the Dayton Amateur Radio Association is located, in, well, Dayton. All of the talent lives in or around the city. That talent is significant, considering that DARA's Hamvention crew are all volunteers. It would make little sense to hold the Hamvention in, say, Vegas, or Houston, simply because of logistics and expense. It would make little sense to "sell" the rights to Hamvention to another sponsoring radio club, because, as radio clubs go, it truly is hard to find the dedication and the stick-to-it-ism that DARA has repeatedly shown. Now I am not saying that it is hard to find a dedicated radio club. There are many that are dedicated to serving their local city or county with emergency communications, many of these clubs are non-profit and 501(c)3 charities that write and receive grants and do great things, many sponsor really nice hamfests… but let's be honest here. Just show me one other ham radio club in the entire world that could pull off a convention of the same magnitude as the Hamvention. I'll get more into that later.


Now why in the world would you want to hold a convention at the Hara Arena? In and of itself, the arena is, in fact, a dump. I will concede that fact. Many (including myself) have pointed out that the Arena is dirty and dingy. The blacktop in the parking lot where the flea market is held hasn't seen a steamroller or a fresh coat of tar in probably ten or fifteen years. The indoor bathrooms are insufficient (well, to be honest, the majority of the attendees are men so the women's restrooms are underused and, some years, I have seen women's rooms used as men's rooms for the convention). The plumbing fixtures are old, cracked, and leaky. Outdoors, they do have a number of convenient port-o-potties that are pumped out a few times a day. If the arena is this bad, why have the Hamvention there? Well, where else are you going to have it? In the last paragraph, we talked about why it is held in Dayton. Where in the greater Dayton area could the Hamvention fit? Think not only indoor space, which would need to be substantial, but outdoor flea market space as well? And, since the flea market takes up a ton of parking spaces in the Hara parking lot, the alternate facility would need to not only have room enough for the flea market, but for actual event parking as well. The Hamvention has no parking spaces at the Arena for attendees (other than a number of ADA parking spaces). There is free parking at a nearby closed-down mall with shuttle service for $3 a day or $8 for the weekend. Many businesses and landowners within walking distance make a ton of cash by selling convenient parking spots for about $8 a day or $20 for the weekend. If an alternate site were to be chosen, flea market space and the availability of enough reasonably-priced parking would be a big priority. This precludes most downtown convention centers and large hotels, which would probably be much too expensive for the Hamvention to use anyway. University sports facilities would certainly be an option but, again, they would probably be too expensive.

So, although the Hara Arena is a dump, it is probably the best place for DARA to hold the event, at least for now. I hear a number of complaints about it and a number of people that I have spoken to simply won't attend because of the condition of the place. To them, I will be blunt: Stop complaining. It's once a year, and you go for the love of your hobby, not to admire a building. If you are that picky of a person, then Hamvention is not for you. Stop going and stop complaining. But if you love ham radio, or even technology in general, then by all means, you will have a good time if you stop focusing on the negatives. Unless, perhaps, you own a piece of property within, say, an hour of Dayton, that could easily host the Hamvention, and you are willing to make the cost reasonable to the Dayton Amateur Radio Association. Then you can complain about the building.

On the other hand, the Hara can't last forever. The Hara will probably go further downhill in the next ten years, and it may actually get to the point where it is no longer a reasonable place to hold the Hamvention. Hell, it may even fall down. It will almost certainly not get better, unless the economy turns around hard and fast in Ohio, and perhaps if Dayton get a good professional sports team and they fix up the arena (unlikely). I am almost certain that the good folks at DARA are aware of this and are planning for the inevitable. The K9ZW blog ( likes to talk about the subject of moving and, although there is a lot of complaining about the Hara and Dayton in general in his articles, they and the comments are a good read. I like the idea that one of the commenters (WS4E) has about moving to Louisville, about two hours away from Dayton, but again this would pose considerable logistical and financial difficulties for the all-volunteer committee.


Why must hams be so negative and talk about how the attendance has gone down from the peak in 1993? Isn't it enough that 2009 apparantly had the best numbers of the past five years in terms of attendance and vendor participation? Isn't it enough that this year is seeing the worst economy in quite a while and yet the numbers are up this year? I was, in fact, shocked at the crowds this year. I thought there would be a substantially poor showing this year. In 2008 the numbers were down, probably due to $3.75/gallon gas prices, but, except for the flea market vendors that perhaps stopped bringing the "junque" that hasn't sold for 20 years, the numbers weren't that far off. We go for the love of ham radio. We suck it up and save up for the gas or the plane trip and buy our Hamvention ticket in advance anyway. And we line up at the ATM and spend money and buy things, big radios and little parts and components for our small projects that we may get to finishing before next year. We still pack the hotels and campgrounds, maybe not 75 miles out like in the 90s, but it's still hard to find a room.

The trick to putting on a show like this is to make it worth attending. To tell the truth, I like attending just to be able to see my old ham radio friends from the cities I have lived in in the past. I also like to attend a few forums. Everybody has a reason to attend. 20,000 people is an impressive number of people to gather for any hobby convention, much less many professional conventions. I had fun and I will go next year. Everybody I know who attended this year has commented on what a good year it was and how much fun they had (except, perhaps, for you Kevin, but you never have fun at anything). If I had fun, and everybody I know had fun, it was a success.


I want to take this paragraph and commend the Dayton Amateur Radio Association for their fine job making it possible for 20,000 people to come and have a good time. "Have a good time" is a vague description of their success, I admit. But there are so many facets of our hobby that to make the majority of us happy is a tremendous feat. These people are all volunteers. They work well as a team, they divide up the work and get the job done. Hell, I was the president of a radio club once, and we had a hard enough time planning where we would go eat after the meetings. This group comes together better than any other group I have ever seen. Sure they have some growing pains now and then, but remember -- these people are not professional convention organizers. They have "real" jobs, and families, and each of them commits a significant amount of time and energy to the Hamvention. They make it work -- every year. And when something goes wrong, remember, they are our brothers and sisters in Amateur Radio. We still owe them our support and thanks. They may be "amateurs" but they are probably some of the most "professional amateurs" out there.

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