/ Modified feb 20, 2015 6:52 p.m.

METRO WEEK: Gem Shows Big Contributors to Economy, UA Research

$120 million economic impact, international research collaboration opportunities from big winter event.

The dozens of Tucson gem shows in town this month are expected to put more than $100 million into the Tucson metro area's economy and contribute to mineralogy research and public geologic education.

The financial figure comes from an economic impact report on the 2014 gem shows, commissioned by Visit Tucson, the area's visitor's bureau and tourism promotion agency.

It's harder to identify the shows' educational effect, but researchers at the University of Arizona say the annual event draws colleagues from throughout the world and gives them an opportunity to see, and acquire, specimens they might not otherwise access.

Economic Impact
Tucson firm FMR Associates, Inc. does an economic impact study on the gem shows every seven years for Visit Tucson. The survey showed about 255,000 people attended the shows in 2000, 363,000 in 2007 and 314,000 last year.

Despite the reduced attendance, the economic impact of the 2014 shows was greater than in 2007, said Andy Wellik, research manager at FMR Associates. {insert graphic: where do buyers come from?} He attributed that to the fact that in 2014, out-of-town buyers made up more than half the attendees, and they usually report spending more money per person than locals.

The $120 million in direct spending (hotels, transportation, equipment rentals, food) among people here for the gem shows meant $11 million in local tax revenue, according to FMR's research.

Those who traveled to buy, and sell, at the shows said they spent time on other activities while they were in town, including gambling, hiking and other sightseeing, according to the report. Those would be indirect economic impacts and not counted as part of the $120 million impact, said Wellik and his colleague Mike Walter, who worked on the study together. {insert graphic: future impact? (out-of-town shoppers)} For a comparison, the Major League Baseball Cactus League spring training has a $230 million statewide economic impact, Wellik said. The gem shows in Tucson equal about half that in a much smaller geographic area.

One other impact is the propensity for those who come to the gem shows to return to Tucson. Many buyers and exhibitors who visited for the first time said they planned to come back. Some said they would be sure to make a return trip for the next gem show.

Not only that, 15 percent of out-of state exhibitors said they planned to extend their stay in Tucson last year by an average of four days.

Research Impact
Those who come to look at pretty rocks or stock up on high-quality jewelry-making supplies share the crowded Tucson streets in February with those who make a living studying the minerals and other material generated by thousands of years of platonic pressure, chemical reactions and time.

"We have a very extensive outreach programs," said Mark Barton, associate director of the UA's Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources.

Some efforts involve the gem shows. Younger students from all over Southern Arizona learn about geology and minerals from UA geology students during the gem shows, he said.

Many visitors also visit the Mineral Museum on the university campus during the gem shows, Barton said.

Marcus Origlieri, a UA research associate and mineralogist who voluntarily helps arrange the Mineral Museum displays, displays some of his personal collection and said the gem shows are one way he acquires samples of minerals for personal display and scientific use.

"In general I go to the mineral shows or perhaps I travel to a foreign mine like South Africa or Japan," Origlieri said. "I try to find interesting samples and I bring them to the lab here. Occasionally you find ones that have never been seen before. It's always interesting to find the ones new to science."

Many exhibitors travel the same show circuit as Origlieri, he said, but they also travel to get new items in between and that's why the stock can reveal something new.

The science impact of gem show season is punctuated because it's a time that mineralogists get to touch base in person, Barton said.

"The tens of thousands of people who come here, it turns out, include many practicing geologists and mineralogists and people from many walks of life who are passionate about minerals," he said. "We're able to get materials that we use for research, and donations for other types of things, that wouldn't happen if it weren't for the gem shows."

It also develops the next generation of mineralogists, Barton said.

"Many of or graduate students are attracted by the opportunities the shows represent," he said.

Tucson Gem and Mineral Society was founded in 1946 "to promote the study of geological sciences," said Gloria Quigg, the publicity chairwoman for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show at the Tucson Convention Center.

On opening day Thursday, the convention center floor buzzed with shoppers, jewelry glinted under bright lights, and spectators pored over educational displays about this year's show theme, minerals of western Europe.

The gem shows are a means to that educational goal, Quigg said, even if some people only come for the commerce.

"We try to educate the public every year. One way is through lectures that we have going on every day, Thursday through Sunday, and the other way is to have exhibits come in," she said.

The first gem show was in 1955, with 20 dealers in an elementary school, and it expanded from there. This year there are dozens of shows with more than 4,000 dealers total.

All the society members working at the show are volunteers, and the show at the Tucson Convention Center this weekend is a fundraiser for the organization, which provides college scholarships, donates to research at the University of Arizona, and supplies elementary schools with educational materials.

At the first gem show, Gene Schlepp, a 17-year-old won an award, Quigg said. The society still offers competitions anyone can enter, all in the name of its public education goals. In Schlepp's case, it worked, Quigg said.

"Gene Schlepp is still a member of the society, he is a mineral dealer, and he is here on the floor selling minerals," Quidd said. "It became a lifelong passion and his vocation."

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