For the first time in roughly 60 years, the Pittsburgh Syria Shriners won’t host its annual circus.
The Shriners, based in a facility in Harmar, serve Western Pennsylvania. They often are seen with their signature clowns and miniature cars in local parades.
The group has to find new ideas for fundraising to come up with its nearly $1 million annual operating budget.
The local chapter is part of the broader Shriners International, which has 22 children’s hospitals in the United States, Canada and Mexico, including two in Pennsylvania.
The circus, previously held every year in Pittsburgh, brought in between $100,000 and $200,000, said Dennis Conrad, a longtime Shriner member.
“That was actually our major fundraiser every year,” he said.
He said the Shriners battled for years with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals over the safety of the animals. And once Pittsburgh passed its ban on the use of any device that could inflict pain, intimidate or give the impression of inflicting pain for training or controlling wild or exotic animals, it was the beginning of the end for the circus.
“Last year, we had to spend an exhaustive amount of money in legal fees just to have the circus,” Conrad said.
Conrad said an incident at last year’s circus involving a camel that threw several children off its back after becoming spooked had no bearing on the decision to end the circus. He said that incident was handled by insurance companies.
“That’s actually the first time that we’ve ever had any kind of an incident at the circus,” he said.
One of their new fundraising ideas is an antique and crafters flea market that started this month. It runs the first Sunday each month through October.
The market is held at the Shriners headquarters at 1877 Shriners Way in Harmar, where vendors can pay $25 for a 20-by-24-foot spot. Anyone interested in being a vendor can call 724-274-7000 for more information.
“I would like to see us hit 50 vendors a month,” Conrad said.
The Shriners also started holding “Night at the Races” and “Sportsman’s Bash” fundraisers to help replace what the circus brought in for the organization. They also raise money from member dues and events held at the center in Harmar, which is a popular wedding and banquet venue.
Conrad said member dues are less than $100 and haven’t been raised in several years, although they could decide to increase them if they aren’t able to meet their fundraising goals. He said that’s hard to do, though, because many of the 4,000 members are older and on fixed incomes.
“People only have so much disposable income,” Conrad said.
He said membership has dropped significantly over the years. At its height, there were about 25,000 members. Today, it’s hard to recruit younger members because families have more obligations.
“A lot of people don’t have the time,” Conrad said.
“We’re trying to do the best we can to continue the tradition,” Conrad said.
“It takes an awful lot of money to keep our building up and running.”