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Otakon, with its costumes, starts Friday

For fans of Japanese anime, comic book lovers or anyone interested in something a little off-beat, the annual Otakon convention in Baltimore is the most wonderful time of the year.

For those who work around downtown Baltimore, it can also be the most colorful time of the year.

Otakon’s organizers are hoping to lure some regular folks to participate this year, and raise awareness that the three-day event, which starts Friday, isn’t just about over-the-top costumes.

“They can’t see the meat of this outside the circus,” said Jeff Kleist, marketing and outreach director for Otakon.

The convention is one of Baltimore’s largest and has been coming to the city since 1999. Nearly 30,000 visitors — many dressed in eye-catching costumes — will flock around the Baltimore Convention Center. The crowd is promising to Baltimore’s tourism industry—hoteliers, retailers, restaurateurs and street vendors all benefit from the convention.

Since it started in 1994 with 350 attendees, the event has grown every year. More than 29,000 came last year, according to Otakon, 10 percent more than 2009’s nearly 26,600 visitors.

The annual trade show has had one of the highest economic impacts in Baltimore the past three years, usually bringing in about $11.3 million, according to figures by Visit Baltimore.

To get the public more curious and integrated into the convention, organizers will be holding a free street festival Thursday outside of the Hilton Baltimore, with carnival games, food and other entertainment.

Camden Street will be closed down from noon until 6 p.m. for the event.

Events during the convention range from workshops on making costumes, learning to be a voice actor, game shows, interviews with industry members, and learning how to be a true Pokémon master.

The convention takes up about 125,000 square feet of space for exhibits, and 175,000 square feet for theaters, using the entire Baltimore Convention Center, said Stacey H. Knoppel, director of sales and marketing.

About two-thirds of Otakon’s attendees register in advance, Knoppel said.

“The numbers are very strong for Otakon,” she said. “They’ll start lining up [Thursday] afternoon. I had seen an email that some of them have already started lining up. But it grows attendance every year, and it’s a good time with a good group of young adults that come together for the event.”

The convention center receives about $200,000 in revenue from rental costs and direct in-house services from Otakon, Knoppel said.

Kleist said this year organizers will be highlighting the U.S. debuts of many Asian musicians coming to the convention. Chemistry, an R&B act from Japan, and Kylee, a Japanese singer described as a “real life Hannah Montana,” will be performing Friday and Saturday nights, respectively.

Otakon will also hold a screening of the 2010 film “Bunraku,” directed by Guy Moshe and starring Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Ron Perlman. Also premiering in the U.S. is the animated film “Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below.”

Otakon is slated to hold its convention in Baltimore through at least 2016.

At Visit Baltimore’s annual meeting July 21, the city’s tourism agency presented Otakon organizers with an award as “Client of the Year” for its commitment to staying in Baltimore.

“Otakon brings an element of fun to Baltimore,” said Visit Baltimore CEO Thomas J. Noonan in an emailed response to questions. “Our office is located across the street from the convention center, and to see so many people lined up to go inside, dressed in imaginative costumes that are nothing short of amazing, always brings a few smiles — and some curious stares — to the downtown crowd.”