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Groundhog Day Rings Town's Cash Registers

February 2, 2013

By John Luciew

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Feb. 02--In the din of the packed bar on the eve of Groundhog Day Eve, an impassioned insurance agent confides about the economic engine that is Punxsutawney Phil. The local business man who doesn`t want his name published confesses that if it wasn`t for Phil, no one would come here. Punxsutawney would be just another past-its-prime Pennsylvania coal mining town with a hard-to-spell name. A great place to raise a family, sure. But godforsaken in the winter. A small town whose charms aren`t all that obvious to anyone.

This is the Punxsutawney in the perverse parallel universe where Phil doesn`t exist. Where 35,000 strong don`t flock here smack in the middle of winter. Where signs, pictures and wood carvings of groundhogs don`t crowd every corner. Such a place is a scary proposition for most here in Punxsutawney. Their Phil-centered universe is all they know. It`s what puts them on the map. It`s what puts money in the bank.

Just don`t accuse anyone in Punxsutawney of making Groundhog Day too commercial.

"You can come to Groundhog Day and not spend a penny," proudly declared Mike Johnston, a past member of Phil`s Inner Circle of handlers and the planners of all things Groundhog Day here.

At the local chamber of commerce, which is located in the rear of a gift shop crammed with all things Phil, officials cringe at the commercialism charge. Admission to Gobbler`s Knob is free, they quickly point out. A round-trip bus ride is to the crammed, car-banned location where Phil makes his forecast is but $5, they argue.

But perhaps the biggest reason plain-spoken Punxsutawney could never be accused of cashing in on their one claim to fame is that the small town simply lacks the economic wherewithal to do so.

There are less than 20 restaurants, and this includes all the fast-food joints and pizza shops. The town has but one hotel and one motel, and there are only 87 rooms between them. And while Phil`s famous, toothy face is on just about anything and everything in town, Punxsutawney throws its doors open to craft vendors. They flock here once a year to hawk their wares. In other words, Punxsutawney is far from attempting to wield a Groundhog Day monopoly.

"We sell out 87 hotel rooms. How big of an economic impact is that?" asked Johnston. "There is no question it is positive. Our restaurants will be wall to wall. Regionally, it has a dramatic impact. Dubois has far more hotel rooms than we do. Hotels will be sold out within a 50-mile radius this weekend."

In other words, Punxsutawney shares the wealth.

And it didn`t get greedy in another department, either. Punxsutawney, which has since become synonymous, with Groundhog Day, never tried to move the official observance to the first Saturday in February. This would assure large weekend crowds year after year.

Instead, when Phil searches for his shadow this Saturday, it will be the first time in 13 years that he`s done so on that day of the week. Leap Year screwed Punxsutawney out of a Saturday Groundhog Day back in 2007.

And the difference between a Saturday and a weekday Groundhog Day? Oh, about 20,000 people. This weekend, Punxsutawney officials are whispering that they could break the 40,000 barrier. Some 80 buses are lined up to transport these troopers the two miles to Gobbler`s Knob. The fleet can move 4,000 people per run.

"If we were commercial, it would be the first Saturday of February every year," Johnston said.

Indeed, the two single biggest factors propelling Phil to international icon status and making Punxsutawney synonymous with Groundhog Day the world over is a movie and the Internet. And the people of Punxsutawney had little to do with either.

Not a single frame of the 1993 Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day" was filmed here. Woodstock, Illinois, of all places, was Punxsutawney`s more photogenic Hollywood stand-in. But the funny flick put this place on the map like never before. The notoriety hasn`t ebbed in 20 years. In fact, it`s grown. Geometrically.

Then there`s the Internet, its limitless capacity for connection, and its 24-7 source as a never-ending invitation and advertisement.

Groundhog Club members say their official Phil Web site draws 20 million hits in just the ten days leading up to Groundhog Day. Phil boasts his own Facebook page and Twitter account. After 127 years, the momentum is unstoppable -- and undeniable. Punxsutawney is Groundhog Day. And Phil is the only weather-forecasting rodent people will trust.

It`s become a 365-day-a-year phenomenon. Visit here in the middle of July, and you`ll find 100 people making the pilgrimage to Gobbler`s Knob. They`ll be in town scarfing up stuffed Phil dolls, too. They even hawk Phil poop here. Okay, it`s chocolate candy, but still. It can`t be the most appetizing thing. But it sells. Like hotcakes. And not just on Groundhog Day.

Punxsutawney has become a "bucket list" destination -- a place people feel they must visit before they die. Punxsutawney has that kind of pull.

"It`s literally year-round now," Johnston marveled.

But it isn`t about the money. At least most of it isn`t. The people of Punxsutawney derive something far more valuable from their tiny town`s enduring fame: Pride in the place they call home.

It`s like the insurance agent in the crowded bar told me with an expression so sober, it bordered on emotional: I can go anywhere and say I`m from Punxsutawney, and people will know.

And not just know, he said. Their faces light up. They smile and nod. And they say knowingly, that place with the groundhog.

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(c)2013 The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Story image: Groundhog Club co-handler Ron Ploucha holds the weather predicting groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, after the club said Phil did not see his shadow and there will be an early spring, on Groundhog Day, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, in Punxsutawney, Pa. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

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