Rochester loses Jehovah's Witnesses convention over failed negotiations

Jul 9, 2019

Credit Emily Hunt for WXXI News

For the first time in over 30 years, Rochester will not be hosting a regional convention for thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses this summer.

According to the religious organization, there was an 11th-hour breakdown in negotiations with Pegula Sports & Entertainment, the management company for the Blue Cross Arena.

"My understanding is it had to do with the cost of renting the arena, and they just couldn't come to terms," said Don Jeffries, president and CEO of Visit Rochester.

Jeffries isn't happy about the loss of the convention, which was scheduled over two weekends in August.

"It's very disappointing," Jeffries said. "They're two huge groups for the city of Rochester in August. It's close to 5,500 hotel room nights we're going to lose, plus all the extras."

Convention attendees had already booked rooms at eight or nine area hotels, and the hotels now will have a hard time filling those rooms in less than a month, he said.

Don Heins, director of communications for Pegula Sports & Entertainment, said in a written statement, "Safely hosting an event of this size requires several operational hard costs including security personnel, emergency medical technicians, traffic police detail and janitorial services. No revenue from these services is retained by Rochester Arena, LLC. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been offered the lowest possible costs to fulfill these needs and hold a safe and enjoyable event."

Jeffries says Visit Rochester tried to move the event to the Riverside Convention Center, but it was already booked. Most conventions are held there, he noted, because it's a more flexible venue that caters lunches and dinners.  But the arena is the only site large enough to accommodate the 9,000 Jehovah's Witnesses who were scheduled to be in Rochester from Aug. 9 to 11 and Aug. 16 to 18. 

Jeffries was not part of the negotiations between the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Pegula management team. 

"They have told us they will look at each group that comes to Rochester and they will put a price tag on it, and that's kind of cut and dried," he said.

Jehovah's Witnesses from 90 congregations across western New York are still considering Rochester as a site for its 2020 conventions.

"Right now is about the time they would be trying to finalize those arrangements," said Scott Miller, a spokesperson for the religious organization. "But with this relocation, that's become the prime focus. Once we get past these two conventions that will be held in the alternate location, then their efforts will be quite earnest in seeing what can be worked out."

Jeffries said he is proposing alternate ideas for next year, even if it would mean spreading the convention over three weekends to allow for enough space at the convention center. 

As for their relationship with the new managers of the Blue Cross Arena, the Jehovah's said in a written statement, "The recent change in management changed the dynamic of our partnership. This was to be expected. But relationships take time to develop and mature. And since our conventions are just weeks away, time was not on our side. That’s why it was vital for us to secure another venue for our congregants."

The Jehovah's Witnesses are now making plans to attend this summer's gathering, which was just moved to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.