$131 Million Economic Impact to Region
By Christy Krueger
Tucsonans tend to take for granted the influx of visitors every January and February for the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase. Yet, this is not just another tourist attraction. This largest annual event in Pima County is the largest of its kind in the world and contributes millions of dollars to the local economy.
While the showcase did not take place in 2021 in its usual form, it’s on track to welcome 30 to 40 shows in early 2022. Some shows did get off the ground in smaller numbers last year. Seven shows, primarily in what’s known as the Mineral District, opened up in January, according to Jane Roxbury, director of convention and gem show services for Visit Tucson, the local visitors bureau. “A whopping 27 shows rescheduled themselves and operated successfully in April 2021,” Roxbury said.
The 2022 Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase will take place Jan. 29 to Feb. 13 in various locations around town. Tucson Convention Center hosts the weekend finale event, “The Show That Glows,” Feb. 10 through 13, with more than 80 exhibits in the Fluorescent Mineral Society pavilion. The final weekend event at the TCC is always popular with locals and visitors alike.
The excitement level has been high for the return of the showcase, said Felipe Garcia, president and CEO of Visit Tucson, which promotes the showcase each year. “People have been questioning if it’s happening – it is. We’re now really excited to be back,” said Garcia.
In November, international travel opened up for vaccinated visitors from several countries. “It’s good news for gem show owners to bring back buyers and sellers,” he added.
While the pandemic caused a large loss to Tucson, Garcia said there were positives from the down time. “It’s always good to go back and look at procedures. It was a good time to look at how to become better. There was some talk about going online, but the owners didn’t want to change the model. We’re committed to Tucson.”
The other plus of having a year off is that while visitors were away, Tucson’s downtown was busy growing to better accommodate them with new hotels and TCC renovations. “We’re excited. People will be blown away by the new construction, the beautiful places,” Garcia said. “Many meetings are starting to happen again. We haven’t seen this kind of energy in a long time – being able to reconvene.” Hotels have been getting bookings for the showcase since last fall and some will be sold out.
Garcia and his staff are doing more promotion to let people know the show is back. “We have great tools and connections to people. It’s important to let people know we’re open and have safety protocols,” which are spelled out on VisitTucson.com. “We have to convey this information and make sure visitors feel safe more than in past years.” There’s also a “How to Gem Show” section on the website for locals and visitors.
Those who want in-person help getting around town will have a treat in Visit Tucson’s new quarters. The organization moved to the Pima County Historic Courthouse in January 2020, while parts of the building were still under construction. The move from a small office a few blocks away offers more space, more visibility and easier access for both locals and visitors and the opportunity to expand its offerings with the adjacent visitor center and other attractions in the building.
“(Pima County Administrator) Chuck Huckelberry approached us and said, ‘I have an idea’ about moving to the renovated courthouse. We thought it would be a good spot for Visit Tucson,” Garcia said. “The space is beautiful. I talked to visitors and clients. People know where it is. It’s iconic and has charms. We were the first one in. The (county) board of supervisors was great.”
Garcia and Roxbury realize the number of owners, vendors and visitors to the showcase will likely be fewer than in recent years, but temporarily losing shows is not new. What often happens if a show shuts down or an owner retires, said Garcia, is the vendors call other owners to join them or a new show will open. “There’s been steady growth over the years.”
In the past decade, Visit Tucson has had more assistance with the showcase from local officials. “We started a core group with the city, county, fire and transportation – like a task force,” Garcia explained. “They help talk to owners. It’s made a huge difference in relationships with owners. We also have an opening event to welcome them here. They feel a part of the community.”
Something new for the showcase this year is the use of the University of Arizona Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum, which is also housed in the Pima County Historic Courthouse. Visit Tucson has been getting word out to gem show owners about the museum and encouraging them to visit. “Many gem shows will have receptions at the museum. It will be very busy during the show,” Garcia said. There will also be trade group gatherings and afternoon lectures.
Now with Visit Tucson for close to two decades, Garcia said he knows many of the owners who have participated in the showcase, particularly Allan Norville and his late wife Alfie. The museum was named for Alfie because of her love and dedication to all aspects of the showcase, as well as being instrumental in starting Gem & Jewelry Exchange, known as GJX, the couple’s wholesale show that offers colored stones and precious metals.
“We started with 33 exhibitor booths; now it’s just under 700, and for the 2022 show we’re full and have a waiting list,” Norville said.
“They’ve been a staple of the gem shows and really made a positive change,” Garcia said of the Norvilles. “The museum is a great legacy, them investing back in our community. It’s amazing.”
Lisa Josker, Pima County facilities director, is in complete agreement. “Allan is a fascinating person; thanks to him for making the museum a reality. And Alfie has done so much for the community.”
Garcia said he realizes that while the showcase generally attracts more out-of-town buyers, the locals are important as well. “A challenge we always have is to try to get people to understand it. It’s called a showcase because many operators are putting on a lot of shows. Locally we’re known as the gem show. TCC is the pillar the final weekend, but there are dozens of other shows,” he said.
“We encourage locals back. Tell your family and friends, share on social media, tell them to enjoy the shows. And if you see outsiders, welcome them to Tucson. One of the highlights of coming here is our own friendly people.”