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Hunting change costs stores dearly

Sporting goods retailers blame woes on Game Commission

Businesses that sell hunting-related products saw a drop in profits at the start of the 2019 rifle deer season and many business owners blame the new Saturday start for their economic woes.

Hunters traveling to camps in Canton from Philadelphia, New Jersey and Lancaster County for the season opener have for years stopped at Jim’s Sporting Goods store in Canton, Bradford County, to browse the shelves and stock up on supplies.

But, because the opening day was moved to Saturday, it seems hunters rushed to get to camp and didn’t stop and shop like usual, said the store’s owner, Jim Fitch in a phone interview.

“I’ve been here for 47 years. I can survive this. But the change cost my business $20,000-$22,000 just for Friday and Saturday,” he said.

Fitch wrote to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“Our business builds, of course, toward the buck season. The three days after Thanksgiving (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) have always been the banner days of the year until this year. Saturday and Sunday of 2019 after Thanksgiving were, at best, dismal,” he wrote.

Before the change, hunters spent the entire weekend in Canton preparing for the Monday hunt, he said.

The change of the first day of deer season resulted in steep losses for all kinds of businesses in rural communities, according to Randy Santucci, South West Regional Director of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania — a statewide sportsmen’s advocacy group.

Santucci said 10 businesses he contacted suffered revenue losses that they attributed to the change of opening day.

Representatives from 10 businesses that communicated with Santucci said their revenue decreased by a total of $360,000 compared with last year, Santucci said.

In preparation for a February hearing with the Game Commission to ask for opening day to be moved back to the traditional Monday after Thanksgiving, Santucci collected copies of the letters and responses of businesses around the state, particularly in rural communities in the northern tier of the state.

Santucci provided the Mirror with letters that he collected from businesses.

“Randy reached out to see what our feelings were. I told him I’d be writing to the Game Commission and my state legislators about it because of the business I lost because of the change in the opener,” said Paul Scavone, president of JS Sporting Goods in Wilkes-Barre.

His letter to the Game Commission describes the economic impact to his business.

He wrote: “I have lost two days of weekend sales, which equates to $20,000 in lost revenue. Hunters usually spend many dollars at hunting stores, restaurants, grocery stores on that weekend. This is revenue that cannot be made up,” he wrote. “To be frank, there has always been a lot of impulse buying that Saturday, Sunday before the big day. … I strongly believe this change was not made with the hunter’s best interest in mind, it was made without our input, and we strongly advocate for the opening day to be changed back to the Monday after Thanksgiving.”

In a phone interview Tuesday, Scavone said he was positive about the reason sales were down.

“I’m positive it is was the change of opening day. I’ve never seen such a drastic change in one year. There’s always a little bit of fluxation, but we lost close to $20,000 of business.”

He shot down other theories for the revenue loss, namely that fear of Chronic Wasting Disease could have put a damper on business.

“Chronic wasting disease is not an issue in our area. I don’t think it would have deterred anybody because my archery season was gangbusters, so why wouldn’t it affect archery season also?”

Santucci has a couple letters from a legislator and a director of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce. It’s not just gun shops that took a hit, he said.

Santucci said the Pennsylvania Game Commission will hold a public hearing at 5 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Mon Valley Career Tech Center in Charleroi about the opening day schedule.

Businesses crippled

Grice Gun Shop in Clearfield saw a $206,000 drop in revenue for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, compared with an average of revenue from past years, according to Thomas Grice in a letter to members of the Game Commission.

Cameron County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tina Johns-Solak wrote a letter Dec. 20 to all of the game commissioners.

“The Saturday dates economically crippled several of our businesses, which depend on a shot in the arm prior to the typical slow first quarter of the year,” she stated. “L&M Hardware, East End Beverage, The Willows Restaurant, Sinnemahoning Tavern, Emporium Food Market are just a few that have contacted me directly regarding loss of sales compared to 2018, despite optimal weather conditions for hunting. They report similar scenarios. Hunters arrived late Friday night, and a few grabbed something to eat, hunted Saturday and left Sunday morning.”

In previous years, it was different.

As Johns-Solak’s letter states: “They would arrive Friday night, spend Saturday purchasing groceries, eating at local establishments, and even work on projects at the camp. Sunday, they would attend numerous fundraising dinners hosted by local nonprofit groups and hunt Monday and Tuesday.”

Republican Sen. Scott Hutchison represents counties including Butler, Clarion, Forest, Venango and Warren. He wrote to Game Commission Director Bryan Burhans on Dec. 18.

His letter begins, “I am writing to you to let you know that I am deeply concerned about the severe negative impact that this year’s Saturday Deer Season Opener had on businesses within my district, and to ask you to seriously consider changes for next season.”

Santucci said about half the businesses he contacted were either in the process of writing to the Game Commission or already did.

“And my contact stimulated the rest. When I contacted them, all were appreciative of my efforts. Of these contacts, all 15 had the same story. I picked sporting goods stores because I figured … I would get the real hunter sentiments about the opener … and boy, did the owners convey the hunter sentiments as being mostly one sided — opposed.”

Game Commission’s response

The gun shop owners contacted by the Mirror also said a majority of hunters never supported the change. Santucci cited the Game Commission’s 2017 Deer Hunter Survey in which 65 percent of hunters were against the change, and in another instance, he said there were calls by 1,300 hunters to the Game Commission — 81 percent of them against the change.

“Opposition of this magnitude toward any issue should be concerning, particularly when the decision-making body, the Game Commission board, is required to educate themselves with this information as a primary source in their decision making,” Santucci said.

Game Commission spokes­man Travis Lau responded to Santucci’s comments and the issue in general with an email.

“Of the 1,152 comments we received about a possible Saturday opener in the lead-up to last year’s decision, 81 percent wanted to stick with Monday. But in the end, the board felt that changing the opening day was the best thing to do for the largest number of hunters, and license sales now seem to back that up. But there will be another decision to make about the opening day for the 2020-21 season, and I’m sure the board will consider all available data and opinions in making that decision.”

Lau stated that the Game Commission has received “some comments by email from people stating the change had a negative effect on their particular businesses.”

“What will happen in the 2020-21 season remains to be seen,” he wrote. “For now, all I can tell you is the preliminary list of 2020-21 seasons and bag limits includes a Saturday opener with the Sunday hunting day required to be placed in the firearms deer season penciled-in as the second day of the season. That doesn’t mean that the Saturday opener, by any means, is set in stone. It’s quite common for changes to be made to the seasons-and-bag-limits list between the time it is introduced and final adoption, which this year is likely to be April 4.”

No response to letters

Business owners including Eric C. George, owner of Hickory Creek Archery and Sporting Goods, said they did not get a response from the Game Commission to their letters.

“My business was down around 80 percent of what I would normally take in over that weekend,” George wrote in his letter to the Game Commission. “My family had been in business for 50 years, and this changing has hit us hard. I’m an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and Desert Storm, trying to make a living in an area that has its business challenges made more difficult by the changing of Pennsylvania’s rifle season opener.

“If you’re familiar with Forest County, it is one of the smallest counties in Pennsylvania with a population of a little over 7,000 residents. … In 2010, a report by the Center for Rural Development at Penn State University it was written that Forest County did have the most recreational homes, which was reported 1 out of 4 were a seasonal homes, hunting cabins, making it more than any other county in the U.S.

“As a business owner, I rely heavily on those seasonal folks to make a living and the changing of the traditional opening of Pennsylvania’s Rifle season to Saturday, the loss of sales that come from that weekend is going to make it tougher to get through the winter, until opening day of Trout Season,” George wrote.

In Knox, Clarion County, Sportsmen Outfitters lost more than $30,000 in revenue, said Manager Tom Rainey. In a phone interview, he said optics and ammunition sales plummeted. He’ll have to rely on ammunition sales to locals in the town of 1,500 to keep the business’ revenue up for the rest of the year.

“Being in an industry with very small profit margins, a hunting season sales loss of over $30,000 is something hard to overcome,” Rainey said. “A lot of the out-of-town guys said they were going to simply come up Saturday morning and hunt and go home because the start up changed their work schedules, and with the holiday, they couldn’t get to camp Friday. I heard from many a customer and myself on Monday and Tuesday that the woods was dead silent for the most part.”

Rainey said on average, Saturday brings in $36,000 in revenue for the shop in “little old Knox, Pa.” but this time, it was a meager $3,953 from two sales. Sunday, which is normally a crazy day selling about $18,000 in shorter hours from noon to 5 p.m. saw just $3,515 in sales.

“I can say all we really managed to do all weekend was get some spring cleaning done early, and try to figure out where we make up all those lost sales,” he said.

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