Murtha’s technology show is showcase for contractors

What started with a few folding tables at a hotel in Johnstown, Pa., 16 years ago is now one of the country’s most popular technology trade shows.

Defense giants and regional companies alike clamor to participate in what it is known as the “Showcase for Commerce.”
The event also is a showcase for one powerful member of Congress: Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

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The lawmaker, who conceived of the show, now held at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena, spends time there each year, visiting every exhibit booth and talking to contractors.

The Johnstown Area Regional Industries (JARI) organization and the Cambria County Chamber of Commerce also are pillars of the event, which is taking place May 31-June 1 this year.

While the show does not have the glamour of other large defense shows — for example, those organized by the Association of the United States Army — Murtha’s presence is a key ingredient to its success.

Some who have attended the show jokingly call it “Murtha’s hour,” but others say his is something of a “command performance.”

“It can be a little bit heavy-handed,” one source familiar with the event said, adding that there is an expectation that a number of local jobs and contracts come out of the show.

“It would be important to get some face-time with him,” said one industry source who will attend this year. “He remembers who is who and he remembers everybody’s pitch.”

The veteran defense appropriator walks to every single booth and spends both days looking at the displays, Murtha’s spokesman said. A good number of the companies have some business before the Appropriations defense panel.

While sources interviewed for this article said it is worth attending the show to court the congressman, they noted that the networking among defense companies pays off as well. For some companies, that company-to-company networking is crucial.

“There is more accomplished between contractors than with the congressional part,” one industry source who has attended the event several times said. “There’s much emphasis placed on networking, with an opportunity to speak to the congressman.”

There is no doubt that the breakfast with Murtha, hosted by General Dynamics on June 1, will be crowded. Several defense giants are sponsoring the show and its various events. Among them are: Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Boeing.

With the price of exhibiting at the show much lower than at other high-profile events, about 180 exhibitors have signed up to attend, according to JARI’s president, Linda Thomson.

“We’ve maximized the amount of participation and we do not anticipate it being bigger than in the past,” Thomson said in an interview. She acknowledged that some potential exhibitors are on a waiting list.

Murtha, the largest recipient of defense-industry contributions, had star power in the industry even before he became the chairman. Murtha, Thomson said, devotes personal attention to the ins and outs of the show.

In just three months this year Murtha raised more than $733 million, the largest amount of anyone on the committee and six times more than he raised in the same period two years ago.

More than 80 percent of the contributors have business before Murtha’s defense panel, according to data gathered by watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense. Among the largest donors is DRS Technologies with $21 million. A unit of DRS (DRS Laurel technologies) is based in Johnstown.

DRS is sponsoring the show’s opening ceremony and VIP reception. DRS in Washington works with the PMA Group, the lobby shop with the strongest ties to Murtha and several other House defense appropriators. Lobbyists from PMA are expected to attend Showcase for Commerce.

When Murtha hatched the idea of the show together with JARI and the Chamber of Commerce, his region was reeling from an economic downturn.

Two decades ago, the area had a 24 percent unemployment rate, having lost tens of thousands of steel and coal jobs. Since then, Murtha, along with economic development agencies, has worked to turn the Johnstown area into a leader in the high-tech and defense industries.

Showcase for Commerce has produced more than $2 billion in contracts for western Pennsylvania. Companies from as far away as Norway and California attend the show.

“The defense contractors that come are looking for qualified subcontractors,” Murtha’s spokesman said. “It is the high-quality work that makes them want to do business in Johnstown.”  

Several lawmakers have attempted to emulate Murtha’s show in their districts, but by all accounts have not achieved the same level of success and prominence. Former Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), for example, tried to do the same thing around Philadelphia, but the effort did not have the same resonance. JARI regularly receives calls from congressional offices inquiring about the setup of Showcase for Commerce.