In the 17 years the Philadelphia Eagles held their preseason training camp at Lehigh University’s Goodman Campus in Bethlehem, the ritual has been touted as a great economic boom for the Lehigh Valley.
But this year, the Eagles decided to forego their annual pilgrimage to Bethlehem and instead are holding camp at home base at their training complex near Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Camp began July 22.
While the absence is certainly disappointing to area football fans, is the loss of the camp a financial fumble for the city and region? Typically, camp would last about three weeks and draw thousands of fans daily, in addition to media, players and Eagles staff.
From a tourism and economic development perspective, Mike Stershic, executive director of Discover Lehigh Valley, said he sees little impact – although he did acknowledge the loss of exposure for the region is significant.
“I don’t think we’re losing much,” he said about the economics. “Hotels, restaurants, gas stations may have gained a little [when camp was at Lehigh], but most people came in for camp and left.”
Merchants agree that the effect on the bottom line was minimal.
George Lioudis, co-owner of Lehigh Pizza on Bethlehem’s South Side, said he has seen a bit of a drop-off in business this summer, but nothing devastating.
“If I had to put a number on it, maybe 10 percent,” he said.
He said he was always happy when camp brought in hungry fans, members of the press, camp staff and even the occasional player, but losing that business won’t break him.
“We still stay pretty busy during the summer, because people don’t like to cook when it’s hot out,” he said.
Also, he noted, that there are still events such as Musikfest to bring in tourists from outside the area. Meanwhile, in the 17 years since camp started, Bethlehem has added other major attractions – such as the Sands Casino Resort and the ArtsQuest SteelStacks – that have brought new business to Lioudis’ shop.
Kim Jones, general manager at the Holiday Inn Express in Hellertown, the closest hotel to where camp was held, agreed that there is more than enough going on in the area to make up for any loss from camp.
“We noticed a little bit of an impact, but not huge,” Jones said.
She said that any rooms that weren’t sold to Eagles fans were quickly snapped up by folks coming to town to visit other regional destinations. She said they even get guests who traveled to the region to see the Crayola Factory in Easton or Dorney Park near Allentown.
At the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley, assistant mall manager Melissa DiLazaro said it was always nice to see the Eagles players stop by after practice for dinner or drinks.
“They would come by. It would be fun for us,” she said.
She said they’re also not seeing the green Eagles jerseys they would normally see strolling through the lifestyle center as fans took breaks from camp for lunch or shopping.
But, she said, merchants don’t seem to be too concerned about the loss of business.
“Our attendance has been pretty great this spring and summer,” DiLazaro said.
She said fan mall visits were always sporadic, at best, and while she expects there will be a “slight impact” from the loss of camp, it won’t seriously affect sales.
Stershic, however, said the region will be losing the exposure it received when camp was held at Lehigh from 1996-2012.
“From an image standpoint, it had a significant impact,” he said.
He said as head of the agency charged with promoting the Lehigh Valley as a tourist destination, he will miss hearing the Lehigh Valley and Bethlehem mentioned on national and regional sports newscasts each night.
“It brought a lot of attention to the area,” Stershic said.
“We always looked at Eagles training camp as a unique marketing opportunity for the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley,” she said. “It was an opportunity for us to broaden our exposure to a bigger audience that mostly resided outside of our trade area, as well as act as a friendly reminder to the locals that we are close by.”
She said she hopes that those who learned of the restaurants and shops by coming to the camp in years past will continue to do so.