CHARLOTTE — A group of celebrities and nearly 70,000 members are opening one of the nation's biggest conventions today, as the National Rifle Association begins its three-day stay in Charlotte.
Billed as the largest convention in Charlotte history, the NRA's 139th annual Meetings and Exhibits officially began at 9 a.m. at the Charlotte Convention Center, but the ceremonial start to the event was a half-hour earlier.
NRA President Ron Schmeits, NRA Ececutive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and Charlotte Visitors Authority CEO Tim Newman participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony at 8:30 a.m.
People began lining up outside the front door of the Convention Center more than an hour before the event began.
Also scheduled to appear at the event today are N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are expected to be out in full force, dealing with what is anticipated to be a major challenge to the city's traffic situation. Adding to the potential congestion are two other events nearby -- UltraSwim, a national-caliber swimming event two blocks away at the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center; and Cavalia, the horse show on West Morehead Street.
"We're getting good at dealing with this type of situation," said Moira Quinn, chief operating officer of Charlotte Center City Partners. "We're just asking people to plan their trips and perhaps use light rail, if possible."
The convention is expected to pump $20 million into the Charlotte-area economy.
The big event today will be at 12:30 p.m., when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin speaks at the Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum. That event had been planned for Bojangles Coliseum on East Independence Boulevard but was moved to Time Warner Cable Arena because of heavy demand for tickets.
Saturday's big event is at 7:30 p.m., also at Time Warner Cable Arena. That is the Freedom Experience Event, featuring keynote speaker Glenn Beck, the national talk show host.
Convention hours officially are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. But a number of additional evening events are planned, including a trip by many NRA members to the NASCAR Hall of Fame tonight.
And the celebrities in town for the convention are making appearances elsewhere. For example, best-selling author and Fox TV military expert Oliver North, a Reagan administration member, threw out the first pitch Thursday night at the Charlotte Knights' baseball game against Lehigh Valley.
The convention features more than 450 exhibitors, along with a number of seminars.
Those seminars cover a wide range of topics, including tips on self-defense, a workshop on proper ways to load firearms, and a program on how to lobby political leaders.
In addition to Palin and Beck, celebrities appearing at the NRA event include North, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and actor Chuck Norris.