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SELLING SUMMERBusiness districts use warm weather to create crowd-drawing events

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PHOTO/PETER GOURNIAK PHOTOGRAPHY
Alexis P. Suter (center) plays to a large crowd at Blues, Brews and Barbecue in downtown Allentown this June.
PHOTO/PETER GOURNIAK PHOTOGRAPHY Alexis P. Suter (center) plays to a large crowd at Blues, Brews and Barbecue in downtown Allentown this June.

Summertime and the living is easy – except for retailers and restaurant owners who generally see a slump in sales when the warmer weather arrives.

To counter that, many business districts attempt to use the fair weather that summer brings to host events large and small to encourage people to shop, sip and dine while enjoying the sunshine.

“Summer is definitely our time to plan events to bring people into the downtown,” said Liz Regan, marketing and events manager for the Downtown Allentown Business Alliance.

The organization had successes from the effort. While both big and small events are held in the city’s center, the downtown’s biggest event, Blues Brews and Barbecue, was a great success, she said, bringing more than 25,000 people into the city for the event last month.

But it’s not just big events that inspire people to head downtown.

It’s also smaller events and activities that give those who work in downtowns an excuse to go out to grab a bite to eat at one of the surrounding restaurants. It’s also inspiring those new – often young – residents of recently constructed downtown apartment buildings to have a night out on the town.

Small events, such as Downtown SIPS in Allentown – in which restaurants have drink and food specials for Wednesday evening happy hours – or the Summer in the City concerts Wednesday afternoons in Allentown also get people out and about to experience downtown.

“It really livens up the business district,” Regan said.

MARKETING THE EXPERIENCE

Enjoying the experience is key, said Mark Ratcliffe, West Reading’s Main Street manager.

His business district also uses a blend of large and small events – some organized by his program and some by the businesses themselves – to generate excitement and give people a reason to shop and dine along the borough’s Penn Avenue area.

“In today’s world, things are more experiential,” Ratcliffe said. “People are more interested in spending money on experiences than things.”

So to give a reason to browse the Penn Avenue shops, besides the shopping, West Reading sponsors events such as Second Friday on Penn, which generally attracts around 500 people for the music and specials that add flair and charm to create an experience beyond just a stroll down the street.

ANY REASON TO VISIT

But an event doesn’t have to be particularly formal.

During the summer months, any outdoor activities that can make a business district a destination can be a draw, said Melissa Nepolitano, general manager of the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley in Upper Saucon Township, which promotes a downtown shopping district vibe.

While the lifestyle center has formal events, such as outdoor movie nights on Mondays during the summer and a summer yoga series on Fridays, just having the pop-jets water fountain in the Town Square in the middle of the shopping center gives people a reason to visit, besides shopping.

While the young families that tend to show up at the water fountain on warm summer days might not be the biggest spenders – they might buy ice cream or an iced latte – bringing in the bucks isn’t the main motive behind such entertainment.

“Anytime you bring more traffic into the property, it’s an opportunity to drive sales,” Nepolitano said. “We’re trying to bring life to our lifestyle center.”

STATEWIDE RECOGNITION

Some of the best downtown experiences are planned for the downtown Easton business district.

The Greater Easton Development Partnership, which oversees the Easton Farmers’ Market and Main Street Program, recently won a pair of Townie Awards, a statewide award recognizing the best programs and events in communities.

One of its big warm-weather projects is the Easton Farmers’ Market, which has had a home on the city’s Center Square since 1752 and is the nation’s oldest outdoor farmers’ market.

But that traditional market is only part of the picture. While the market draws crowds with themed events from Peach Day to the Zucchini 500 zucchini races, there are plenty of other draws to Easton’s downtown.

FUN, EXCITEMENT

Jared Mast, executive director of GEDP, said his organization plans a variety events such as its Fourth Friday Easton Outloud, which is geared toward bringing people to the downtown’s businesses, to a Live at the Falls concert series that is more for creating an atmosphere of fun and excitement in the city.

“People come out for the additional fun activities and extended business hours for Fourth Friday, and [it] gets people to know where the businesses are,” Mast said.

Other events, such as the annual Heritage Day, “highlight what’s unique to Easton, which gives us our competitive edge,” Mast said. “It reflects our culture and makes Easton’s festivals a part of our history.”

BACKING

BY BUSINESSES

With all of these events, community organizers say the biggest factor in making them a success for businesses is the businesses themselves.

Mast said Easton-area businesses are always keen on getting involved in events or sponsoring their own events to get people excited about what they and the city have to offer.

He cited Clam Jam, a seafood street festival sponsored by 3rd and Ferry Fish Market, as a popular event run by a private business.

THE MOST TO GAIN

Restaurants and places such as craft breweries are looking for urban environments as places to locate because of the atmosphere created by such events.

Ratcliffe said it tends to be the bars and restaurants that are the most engaged in developing events.

“I think food and beverage businesses are the most engaged because they have the most to gain by bringing in people,” he said

Regan said she sees enthusiasm for all sorts of events from downtown Allentown businesses.

“The more we do, the more excited businesses get,” she said. “… The energy between us and the businesses has been amazing.

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