Ahead of last Otakon in Baltimore, fans reflect on anime convention's legacy

Once a year, Otakon turns Pratt St. into a scene from a video game. But the cosplayers will soon be gone.

For the past decade, whether it required a quick drive or a cross-country plane ride, Sarah Fongheiser, 27, has always counted on one trip each year. The destination: the Baltimore Convention Center, for one of the largest anime conventions in the country.

For the former Baltimore resident, Otakon has been more than just an event where she could dress up as her favorite characters for three days straight, indulge in East Asian culture and see some of her favorite musicians perform. It's a place where she has formed some of her most important relationships and memories.

"I met my boyfriend there. I've met all my best friends there. ... It just may as well been Disneyland for me as a teenager," said Fongheiser, who now lives in Anaheim, Calif.

But this year will be Fongheiser's last trip to Otakon in Charm City.

The convention, which runs Friday-Sunday and expects 30,000 attendees this year, has grown too large for the Baltimore Convention Center — where it has been hosted every year since 1999, according to Otakorp, the organization that runs the convention. Next year, Otakon will move to Washington, where it will stay for at least five years.

The convention, which started in State College, Pa., in 1994 with a mere 350 attendees, has grown every year since, so much so that Otakorp had to set caps on the number of people attending, said Otakon convention chair John Gluth.

"We have been growing pretty consistently for years now, and the last few years, we really hit our absolute max fit both for their own comfort and the fire codes inside the Baltimore Convention Center," Gluth said.

"We just can't grow anymore [here], but we keep growing, so we have to find a way to work around that. It kind of pushed for the move to D.C."

Though the convention is relocating just down the road, the move signifies the end of a memory-filled chapter for scores of anime fans, many of whom attend the conference year after year.

"I'm a full grown adult now. I live on my own. I have a full-time career," said Fongheiser. "But I've been going to this every year since high school. It's pretty emotional. I'm sad to see it go to D.C."

It's a sentiment not lost on Otakon organizers, who chose a theme of "Port Town" for this year's convention to pay tribute to Baltimore and the Inner Harbor. Throughout the packed schedule of festivities — including a dance and lip sync battle in cosplay, a Pokemon battle on Nintendo 3DS, internationally acclaimed Japanese musician Yoshiki and the entire voice cast of anime TV series "One-Punch Man" as special guests — the city's culture and ambience will tie into various panels and workshops, according to Gluth. Kuniko Kanawa, a priestess in Japan's Shinto religion, will deliver a Shinto prayer at the convention for a safe sendoff for Otakon.

Meanwhile, fans like Fongheiser will relive their Otakon memories in Baltimore for one last time.

Fongheiser remembers seeing one of her favorite singers, T.M.Revolution, perform on her birthday, as well as prepping for the event each year by hand-making costumes so she could dress as Sailor Moon and other well-known anime characters. This year, she's hopping on the Pokemon Go bandwagon and going as a Pokemon trainer, the dinosaur-like Pokemon Bulbasaur, and Felicia from the "Darkstalkers" video game for what might be her last time at the Baltimore Convention Center for a long while.

"[The building] is pretty old," she said. "But I can't let go of it."

Chris Powell, 32, of Largo, who has been attending the convention since its Baltimore beginnings, said he will miss the action in the city.

"Once there was a baseball game at the same time at the convention. It was cool seeing people that were going to the Orioles game interact with Otakon attendees," said Powell, co-host of anime, comic and pop culture podcast "3BlackGeeks."

Interacting with passersby is also a favorite memory of Brad Brooks, 28, of Aberdeen, who noted that the cosplayers — those dressed in costume — often draw raised eyebrows.

"I'm going to miss the reactions of people on the streets to costumes, either laughing along with us or the interesting looks," he said. Brooks, who has been attending Otakon since 2007, will be dressing up as WWE wrestler Kevin Owens this year.

Powell and other longtime attendees have seen the convention evolve over the years, growing from strictly anime-centric to a more broad sampling of characters.

"There was a huge influx of people dressing up as Harry Potter characters one year. Some people have dressed up as Marvel and DC [comic] characters," Powell said. "It's a popular [culture] thing, but it never overshadowed the anime theme, because that's just the staple at these kind of conventions."

Gluth credits Otakon's expanding fan base to the welcoming nature of the convention.

"Conventions like ours are seen as safe places where, no matter what your personal fandom is or your geek things are, you're going to be welcome and accepted," he said. "Because of that, it's kind of diversified out in what people come to see and do and talk about."

That sense of community and human interaction is the main reason Ralph Pierce, 27, has been coming to Otakon for the past 11 years.

"You have a very diverse cast of people congregating in one place, and being around like minded people and seeing the contrast between different costumes," he said. "It's a departure from real life because you're immersed in human interaction. It's a blend of really good experiences."

While he is still planning on attending the convention in D.C., Pierce, who lives in Bel Air, said he will miss having Otakon in Baltimore for logistical regions.

"I got to know that part of the city a lot more, which made it easier to navigate," he said, adding that the longer commute and possible need to rent a hotel room could make the convention costlier for him. "It's going to be quite a transition."

And it's not just the fans who are saying goodbye. Baltimore Convention Center employees like Stacey Knoppel have their own Otakon memories after watching the convention grow over its 17 years there.

Knoppel, 51, director of sales and marketing for the convention center, said the lines of costumed adults taking up every inch of the building will be missed.

"Think 10 or 15 years ago when Otakon was [first getting started], there were a lot of calls that came to our front desk, citizens asking 'What is this show? We see people standing outside. They're not young children. They're adults in costumes, and they're lined up.' Now, we get phone calls from people saying, 'When is the event coming?'" said Knoppel, noting that the convention is exploring options for expansion to "keep groups like Otakon."

Otakon's move to Washington will have its perks, as well, fans say. Powell sees the move as beneficial for out-of-state attendees.

"D.C. is a very central area. You're getting people that can fly in and probably metro straight to the convention," he said.

Brooks said he believes it will be an improvement in infrastructure and a chance for Otakon to expand its programming.

"It's a benefit for all even though it's losing what feels like a home. I think Washington, D.C., will feel like home eventually," Brooks said. "It'll have some growing pains, but we'll get there."

Otakorp organizers, who realize the move may be bittersweet for fans, said that they are discussing ways to keep some of the convention's presence here in Baltimore despite next year's move, Gluth said.

"We're not saying goodbye," Gluth said. "It's more of a 'see you later.'"

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If you go

Otakon runs 8:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Tickets are $80-$100. otakon.com.

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