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Furries expected to be financial boon to Pittsburgh during convention

| Thursday, June 30, 2016, 11:54 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Brer Fox, right, helps Pat Dawson of Churchill cross a street, Downtown on Thursday, June 30, 2016. The furries are in town for Anthrocon which runs from June 30-July 3.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
A furry walks by (left to right) Dale Schweickhardt, Steve Fox, Terry Kelly, and Jill and Joe Labriola all of Gibsonia as she enjoys happy hour at Ten Penny, Downtown on Thursday, June 30, 2016. The furries are in town for Anthrocon which runs from June 30-July 3.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Jason Lehman from Atlanta, GA chats with furry 'Wilson T. Longtail' on the street in Downtown, Thursday June 30, 2016. Anthrocon, the annual convention of the 'furries,' is being held through Sunday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
People dressed as 'furries' hang outside the Westin Hotel in Downtown, Thursday June 30, 2016. Anthrocon, the annual convention of the 'furries,' is being held through Sunday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
'Furries' make their way through Downtown, Thursday June 30, 2016 as Anthrocon is being held through Sunday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Furry-costumed characters and their fans descended on Downtown Pittsburgh on Thursday with the arrival of the annual Anthrocon — and the millions of dollars it pumps into the local economy.

More than 6,700 people — from every state and more than 20 countries — are expected to attend the world's largest anthropomorphic convention, which will be held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center through Sunday. In its 20th year, Anthrocon has been held in Pittsburgh since 2006.

“There is a culture and vibe here,” said John “K.P” Cole, Anthrocon board member and programming director. “It was a perfect match. It really has worked out better than anyone ever imagined.”

Over the past 10 years, “Furries” — as Anthrocon attendees and supporters are called — have had a $46 million economic impact through hotel rooms, meals, travel and other direct spending, according to VisitPittsburgh. This weekend, Anthrocon is expected to spend more than $6 million here, the visitors' bureau said.

“That's a big win over a weekend when you wouldn't normally have any business,” said VisitPittsburgh spokesman Tom Loftus, noting it is difficult to attract conventions over the July 4 holiday. “We didn't realize how big it was going to be when they came 11 years ago.”

The first year, Anthrocon booked about 1,000 rooms — all at the Westin Convention Center Pittsburgh Hotel. For this year's event, more than 6,000 rooms are booked at eight hotels, Loftus said.

Businesses surrounding the convention center do their best to cash in.

Tonic Bar & Grill and The Exchange music and game store posted signs welcoming Anthrocon attendees.

Fernando's Cafe, a longtime Furry favorite on Liberty Avenue, temporarily rebranded itself “Furnando's” for the weekend.

“It affects everybody Downtown. It's not just me,” said Baris Budak, who owns the cafe as well as Pizza Parma.

Budak's staff spent the week prepping for the Furries' arrival, ordering dog bowls to serve meals in and special 30-inch straws for “fursuiters” to drink through while wearing costume heads.

“The whole week is crazy,” Budak said, noting some Furries arrived as early as Tuesday. He said business doubles or triples during Anthrocon, both from attendees and the curious public.

“It's like the big duck,” Budak said, referencing the giant rubber duck public art display that was at Point State Park in 2015. “Everybody comes down to see the Furries and take pictures.”

A “fursuiter” parade will be held outside the convention center at 2 p.m. Saturday on 10th Avenue. Last year was the first time the annual parade of costumed Furries ventured outside for the public to see, and fans and gawkers flocked to the event.

“People inside see us every day. But the city outside doesn't,” said Randy Fox, 46, of Orlando, Fla., who goes by the character name “YappyFox” and has led every Furry parade since the first in Albany, N.Y., in 1997. “It was just amazing.”

Only about 10 percent to 15 percent of attendees wear costumes, Cole said. He is one of them.

Cole said many Furries spend from $2,000 to $12,000 on their costumes, which reflect animal characters they create that bear human form.

In addition to a slate of events ranging from writing, acting and fursuit-making sessions to dances, games and meet-and-greets, Anthrocon — a Pennsylvania nonprofit organization — each year raises money for a Pittsburgh-area nonprofit or charity that focuses on helping animals.

Past beneficiaries have included the National Aviary, Equine Angels Rescue and the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, to which Furries last year contributed more than $35,000.

This year's recipient will be Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

“I'm hoping we can break $40,000,” Cole said. “It's our way of giving back to Pittsburgh. The city has welcomed us with open arms.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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