For centuries, the arts have played a role in fueling economic growth in cities.
With an influx of development in cities throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley, the role of the arts is gaining renewed strength as local organizations take a more collaborative and coordinated approach to promoting and sustaining economic revitalization.
Many downtown organizations are collaborating with arts venues to plan events that cater to young professionals, who are seen as significant contributors to downtown spending. But organizations also are looking to attract families.
By being more collaborative and coordinated, these local organizations say they can better build links between the arts and business, turning cities into destinations that people visit again and again
A DIVERSE MENU
Downtown events in the Greater Lehigh Valley run the gamut from traditional film festivals and live shows to ice sculpture carvings and fire dancer performances.
Advocates believe the events have largely succeeded in bringing people into the region’s cities.
The Downtown Reading Improvement District, for example, collaborates with a number of organizations and businesses to host arts-related events, many of which draw big crowds. The Downtown Alive free outdoor concert series, presented by Weidenhammer, routinely attracts 2,000 to 3,500 people, said Charles Broad, executive director of the Downtown Reading Improvement District.
In addition, the organization collaborates with Centro Hispano to produce an annual outdoor festival, Boscov’s for the Berks Jazz Fest, and with the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance to produce the Penn Street Market, which includes musical entertainment, Broad said.
The Reading Fire and Ice Fest, a winter festival, brings ice sculptures, carving demonstrations and fire dancers to the downtown, attracting many young professionals and their families, Broad said. The improvement district also collaborated with Goggleworks Center for the Arts for Pumpkin Palooza, an event in October that offers pumpkin painting and glassblowing activities.
These collaborations work both ways: The downtown organization has items that arts organizations may not, such as large numbers of chairs, tables, sound equipment and umbrellas, Broad said.
And based on anecdotal evidence, businesses are noticing a difference.
Carlos Salguero, manager of Russo’s Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant on Penn Street said the Downtown Alive concerts have translated into an increase in business.
“A lot of people get to try different things, a lot of people coming from out of town,” Salguero said. “It’s really interesting to see how the different people interact.”
The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Reading, which opened in 2015, also has seen an increase in business on nights the Santander Arena across the street has concerts, according to Craig Poole, the hotel’s general manager.
The concerts draw people from Philadelphia, eastern New Jersey and Baltimore who stay at the hotel, he said. However, local people also often stay over to avoid driving home after a show.
The hotel also sees growth in food and beverage sales. While the hotel has a restaurant, it adds a pop-up restaurant with three to four bars in the lobby when the arena has a show.
Those nights, the hotel’s income will quadruple, Poole said.
The arts also are playing a role in Pottstown, where Steel River Playhouse acts as a centerpiece for a borough looking to reinvent itself, perhaps through the arts.
“Pottstown is obviously in need of revitalization,” said Beth McDonnell, director of marketing and sales for Steel River Playhouse. “One of the anchors that most vibrant communities have is a strong foothold in the arts industry in general.”
McDonnell said she sees some economic development already with new restaurants opening up and more retailers coming in.
REINVENTING FIRST FRIDAYS
Many cities have monthly programs that include arts activities on the first Friday of each month designed to bring people into a community, and creating spillover business for surrounding retailers. The frequency of the programs helps keep them front of mind and encourages repeat business, advocates said.
Southside Arts District coordinates First Friday events in South Bethlehem. It’s a change from when downtown merchants were trying to do it themselves, said Missy Hartney, the organization’s manager. The change bought a renewed effort to use the arts to capture people’s attention and, hopefully, their business.
There’s certainly been more people coming in, Hartney said. “I think it really speaks to how we are all working together.”
An event that has drawn young professionals into Reading’s downtown is the First Friday beer garden, an outdoor event that incorporates live music, an art background and food trucks, said Lindsay Crist, director of community development at Reading Public Museum and president of the Greater Reading Young Professionals.
GRYP sponsored the event and has a partnership with the Reading Downtown Improvement District and Pollen Consolidated, a Reading-based event planning business. Proceeds from the event go to local nonprofits, a factor that appeals to millennials
“They don’t have a lot of money to donate but they like to get involved with events that correlate to giving to those organizations,” Crist said.
But while arts-related events can draw many younger people to downtowns, they can attract other audiences.