Popularity problem? Lititz's reputation leads to challenges - InfoNews

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Popularity problem? Lititz's reputation leads to challenges

August 22, 2020 - 8:10 AM

LITITZ, Pa. - This year’s Fire & Ice Festival was a blur for Lititz candy shop owner Gary Garson.

As tens of thousands of visitors swarmed downtown shops and Lititz Springs Park to see ice carvings, hear live music, sample chili and witness a pyrotechnics light show featuring lasers, they also packed into his 69 E. Main St. shop and bought Pez, Pixy Stix, bottled sodas and other candy novelties.

“We didn't stop from morning until night. All I saw were hands with money,” said Garson, who owns Candyology with his wife, Rita.

Lititz's many quaint downtown shops like the Garsons' are built on the large crowds drawn in by a full slate of public events like Fire & Ice, as well as business from big-name musicians and crews who rehearse at the nearby Rock Lititz campus before embarking on massive tours.

As a result, pandemic-related limitations on large gatherings and travel pose an existential threat for a placed dubbed the number one “Coolest Small Town” in 2014 by BudgetTravel.com.

While some bright spots are emerging, most businesses are simply hunkering down and hoping for the best until the crowds can return.

“The town depends on a lot of those big events, not to survive maybe, but to be profitable,” said Dennis Beck, a local real estate agent and member of Lititz Improvement, a real estate investment group that owns 28 commercial properties in town.

“Going forward, I don’t know. It’s obviously going to hurt. It’s currently hurting and it’s going to continue to hurt for the foreseeable future,” Beck said. “Whether it’s going to be terminal for any of (the town’s small businesses), I don't know.”

‘Get through it’

The Lititz town calendar has revolved around periodic community events, five of which - the Fire & Ice Festival, Lititz Craft Beerfest, Lititz Springs Park Fourth of July, Rotary Club of Lititz Craft Show and Lititz Chocolate Walk - attract more than 110,000 visitors combined while raising nearly $350,000 for various community groups and nonprofits.

While stores and restaurants have reopened downtown and some tourists have found their way back, Lititz is far from normal since tour buses have not returned and the massive community events that bring so many visitors into town remain cancelled for the foreseeable future.

In a normal year, Aug. 8 would have been the busiest day of the year for the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. Roughly 40,000 people typically visit the town the second Saturday in August for the Rotary Club of Lititz Craft Show.

“You just have to be realistic about it and deal with it and try to do the best you can to get through it,” said Bill Snyder, the mayor of Lititz and owner of the circa 1861 pretzel store and museum that anchors the eastern end Main Street’s retail strip. “We’re doing what everybody else is doing - we cut hours and have less employees, so we can cover our expenses.”

Snyder said he’s hopeful about a return to normal but still worries about being able to manage if there’s another forced shutdown in the fall.

“We have a nice town here and have spent a lot of time building it up. I’m very hopeful things will get back to normal at some point in time,” he said.

Nearby on Main Street, Aaron’s Books is struggling through the late-summer months that are typically some of the store’s busiest, helped by steady flow of summer tourists.

“For us, it is 70 per cent tourists in July and August. That’s when people come to the county, and specifically to Lititz,” said Todd Dickinson, who owns the 33 E. Main St. store with his wife, Sam. “We get tremendous summer sales out of tourism.”

Now, Dickinson said sales from tourism have dropped to “zero” as the store has been forced to sacrifice shelf space to accommodate social distancing. Dickinson said he especially missed the early August sales boost when more than 40,000 people can descend on town for the craft show, and then discover the shop while wandering through town.

“The less events there are, the harder it is. I’m not going to say it’s going to be the deciding factor about whether we are here long-term, but I would say it is very difficult,” Dickinson said.

Events hub goes quiet

Activity has also slowed down at the northern edge of the borough where the normally-bustling Rock Lititz campus hasn't been hosting large-show dress rehearsals. Business that support such shows suddenly have little to do.

Tait, the world's largest designer and manufacturer of staging for live events, was forced to furlough most of its workers when the live events industry shut down. The company has pivoted to making cashier/sneeze guards, face shields and Plexiglas restaurant barriers, but that work is a small fraction of its former activity.

Gravie Kitchen, a restaurant that functioned as a kind of cafeteria for the campus, is temporarily closed because there aren't enough people around. Josh Funk, an owner of that business as well as Per Diem restaurant at Rock Lititz Hotel, said he opened those businesses several years ago because of what he saw as the strong anchor of the live events industry which has become increasingly vital as artists become more dependent on touring to make money.

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"It's a blip, it will come back."

- Josh Funk, owner of Gravie Kitchen and Per Diem

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With that anchor gone for now, Funk is trying to keep from sinking by getting new diners to Per Diem, even as he awaits for the resumption of large, live events which should kick start activity at Rock Lititz.

“The campus revolves around live events. When that comes back we’ll be rocking and rolling,” he said. “It’s a blip, it will come back.”

Positive signs

Even as commercial activity is way off in Lititz, there are signs that people are still finding their way into town.

Therese Williams, owner of Indulge Lititz at 69 E. Main St., says she’s been recently noticing customers from New Jersey, Baltimore and Maryland coming through her specialty coffee and tea shop, to the point where sales now are about where they were this time last year.

“We were surprised, we didn’t know what to expect,” she said.

Also helping local shopkeepers is the decision by Lititz Improvement to forgive May's commercial rent for all its tenants.

“That was a big help for everybody,” said Snyder, who counts the nearly 50-year-old real estate group as his landlord for the pretzel museum.

People are also coming back to Bulls Head Public House at 14 E. Main St. It has several outdoor dining areas, including a white tent set up along Broad Street. Owner David Stoudt says the creative use of outdoor space has made it possible to “break even” at the landmark restaurant, which he says may not be doing as well as it appears.

“We’re pushing a lot of our folks outside, so visibly we look probably busier than we are. The inside might be empty,” he said.

Hope for the future

Holly DeKarske, executive director of Lititz promotion group Venture Lititz, notes new projects are still being developed and opened.

Just last week, DeKarske attended a ribbon cutting for Tied House, the brewpub that replaces JoBoys on Main Street. And, she expects to welcome the opening sometime next month of Collusion Tap Works, which will take a spot in a renovated shirt factory warehouse.

Work also continues on the more than 200 apartments behind where a boutique hotel, condominiums, restaurant and market opened earlier this year after the redevelopment of the former Wilbur Chocolate factory.

“Lititz is a strong town with a loyal group of local residents and visitors. Lititz will bounce back,” said Ian Ruzow, a partner in Oak Tree Development, which put together the Wilbur project.

Yet a return to the good times of huge crowds massing in town for one of Lititz’s marquee events may be farther away than imagined. The organizers of Fire & Ice say they are already planning a stripped-down version of the mid-February event which could include some “ice” but no “fire.”

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“Lititz is a strong town with a loyal group of local residents and visitors. Lititz will bounce back."

- Ian Ruzow, partner in Oak Tree Development

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DeKarske, whose Venture Lititz helps plans the event, said the Lions Club won’t be doing a chili cook-off at the school and there will be likely only a few ice sculptures as organizers anticipate having a hard time getting business sponsors. In addition, gatherings might still be limited in mid-February.

For an event DeKarske says can easily triple a Lititz store’s sales, organizers are proceeding carefully.

“We're trying to be really, really cautious about this,” she said. “It is a huge impact to our shops that weekend, but if you can only have three or four people in store at once, what’s the point of having a crowd.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2Q2H1p8

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Information from: LNP, http://lancasteronline.com

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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