Bellefonte Under the Lights: Harnessing the power of community character
Picture this: Tables lined up along a waterfront walkway, overlooking one of the PA Wilds region’s most picturesque streams. Bistro lights strung across the walkway, providing just enough light to not outshine the sunset. Community and camaraderie.
That’s what organizers visualized when they planned the first-ever Bellefonte Under the Lights waterfront dinner in 2018. A fundraiser for Downtown Bellefonte Inc., the event proved to be one of the most successful the community has ever seen, with tickets selling out in just under two hours.
Now in its second year, Bellefonte Under the Lights organizers have doubled the number of tickets sold to the event taking place on September 6, 2019 — now accommodating up to 800 people — and tickets have sold out once again.
But for the creative minds behind the dinner, it’s about more than hosting a fundraiser or just another community event. It’s about creating a space that shows off an underutilized Bellefonte asset (the waterfront), getting people excited about what’s happening in their community, and showing the rest of the world that Bellefonte is a unique destination to visit.
“Bellefonte Under the Lights is a really unique event, and one of our goals for the event — that was reached — is celebrating Bellefonte itself,” said Shannon Wright, Keystone Community Coordinator for Downtown Bellefonte Inc. “We only open vendor spots to those that are based in Bellefonte and gear the audience to people who are part of the Bellefonte community in some way.”
At the dinner, attendees are given vouchers for an appetizer, entree, dessert and craft beverage — all created and offered by Bellefonte-based businesses.
One of the most unique aspects to the event, she said, is the location.
“The location of the event highlights a lot of Bellefonte’s assets — the picturesque mountains, the redeveloped waterfront walkway, the natural asset of Spring Creek and the historic architecture within view.”
The event sits in basically the front lawn of Bellefonte’s historic Gamble Mill, which was recently purchased and is being redeveloped.
And when you tie together the location, the delicious food and drinks and the beauty of spending time outdoors on a Friday night in September, what can happen is incredible.
“We really wanted to make this event for the community itself, so the communal set up of tables encourages everyone to mingle and get to know each other,” Wright said. “One of my favorite stories from the 2018 dinner was that a long-time resident of Bellefonte sat across from their next door neighbor … it took coming to the event for them to be able to meet.”
When it came to buying tickets for local business owner and resident Lydia Shafer, she didn’t wait. “I wanted to be a part of the buzz,” she said.
“I loved seeing all of the different vendors showcasing their unique food and drinks. I also loved running into friends and being able to catch up under the canopy of pretty lights.
“At least once a week, I hear someone say ‘Bellefonte is thriving.’ It’s because of events like Under the Lights that Bellefonte is now known for its fresh, creative and modern charms,” Shafer said.
But what does an event like this mean for the future of Bellefonte?
According to Wright, events like Under the Lights are a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to encouraging people to visit to Bellefonte throughout the rest of the year — or even better, to move to Bellefonte. From a business perspective, it showcases that big things are happening in Bellefonte — and that it’s a great place to start a business. For the organizers of the event, business recruitment and retention are always on the mind.
And the model of using an event to promote both tourism and business recruitment and retention is one that other PA Wilds communities can follow.
“Not a single community in Pennsylvania or the country for that matter is the same,” Wright said. “Each one offers something unique for residents and visitors. It’s on community leaders to analyze what makes their community special and build off what’s already present to create a sense of place within your community.”
Leaders can harness the power of what makes their community unique, she says.
*Photos courtesy of Michael Davis Photography
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