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PhenomeCon lands in Utah with talk of UFOs, Bigfoot, taxes

Posted at 5:41 PM, Sep 07, 2023

VERNAL, Utah — Kirby Fairhall traveled to the other side of the planet to hear about things that are out of this world.

“I love the UAP/UFO topic,” said Fairhall, of New Zealand.

Moments later, Fairhall held up a pullover – a “jersey,” she called it – and a coffee mug bearing the logos of the Vernal-based PhenomeCon.

PhenomeCon is a four-day conference focused on the paranormal – from aliens to Bigfoot to unexplained energies. Posters in the county conference center hosting the event include the phrase, “WE BELIEVE.”

The annual conference runs through Saturday. Organizers say about 1,200 people are expected to attend. Day passes are still available.

“This is our third time here,” said Diane Heller, of Las Vegas.

Heller and her partner enjoy listening to speakers, though Heller arrives with her own experiences.

“I lived in a haunted house that had a lot of activity going on for a number of years,” Heller said.

“We have spotted UFOs,” she added. Jeff Freeman traveled from Pittsburgh. He hosts a podcast on the paranormal and was planning to find sources to interview. On Wednesday, PhenomeCon’ s opening day, he was showing off a framed photo a fan gave him.

It’s a still photograph from a video depicting what’s purported to be Bigfoot. The photo is autographed by the man who took the video.

Freeman calls himself “a skeptic on Bigfoot.” He is more credulous toward UFOs and unexplained energies, such as those depicted on “The Secrets of Skinwalker Ranch.” That ranch sits west of Vernal and is one of PhenomeCon’s draws.

“It is real,” Freeman said, “that there is something going on. We may not have all the answers yet, but there is truly something happening out there.”

Lesha Coltharp is director of tourism and events for Uintah County, and she manages PhenomeCon. Wednesday, she proudly declared, “This year we have people joining us from 41 states, five countries and three planets.”

Budget documents obtained by FOX 13 through a public records request show PhenomeCon has a $170,800 budget this year. That include paying $5,000 back to Uintah County for use of the conference center, though other inherit expenses, like Coltharp’s labor, are not included.

Speakers are paid. Phenomecon will pay $3,500 plus travel expenses to Travis Taylor, one of the stars of “The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch,” according to a contract FOX 13 received.

“Expedition Bigfoot” star Mireya Mayor is receiving $3,000 while her co-stars Russell Acord and Ronny Le Blanc will receive $2,000 each. Uintah County will also pay expenses for the three.

Other speakers will receive $300 to $1,000 plus expenses. Many speakers also received offers for discounted booths where they sell merchandise or to collect more fees for extra excursions paid for by conferencegoers.

Coltharp said the conference expects to meet its $170,800 budget with ticket revenue. The two previous incarnations of PhenomeCon lost a total of about $24,000. That money came from taxes meant to support tourism.

Coltharp expects the conference to generate about $500,000 in commerce for Vernal and Uintah County businesses.

The use of taxes to finance or organize PhenomeCon is just one concern of Steve Long, a skeptic from New Jersey with his own online show that often questions the claims of people in the UFO community.

He worries what’s said at PhenomeCon preys on people predisposed to believe in the fantasy and conspiracies and that benefits people seeking to profit.

“These are things that are just very sensational,” Long said, “and dangerous, and they're being leveled for money, taxpayer money.”

Long specifically cited claims of UFOs. He worries the current national conversation about the possibility of unexplained objects in the skies, whether people believe them to be foreign or extraterrestrial, benefits defense contractors.

“To say that there's no harm,” Long said, “‘it's kind of like believing in Santa Claus,’ that's fine. And, again, I don't have a problem with what people want to believe, but, certainly, no one is lobbying Congress for millions or billions of dollars over Santa Claus.”

The watchdog group Expanding Frontiers Research was the first to obtain financial information about PhenomeCon. On Thursday, it pointed out on social media that Uintah County didn’t advertise or take bids for conference speakers.

Coltharp has said an organizing committee, including employees of Skinwalker Ranch, select the speakers.

Conferencegoers like Fairhall and Freemand aren’t concerned about misinformation and think PhenomeCon is a good use of taxes.

“Open your mind,” Fairhall said. “Open your eyes and make your own choices and your own decisions about what you want to believe.”