Bristol Borough aims to survive final cut in competition for $500,000 revitalization | Crain's Philadelphia

Bristol Borough aims to survive final cut in competition for $500,000 revitalization

The Delaware River in Bristol Borough. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Many in Bristol Borough feel like they’ve already won a competition to revitalize their small business community — though they wouldn’t mind actually winning.

The Bucks County borough was recently named a top five finalist in the running for a $500,000 facelift and the chance to star in season two of “Small Business Revolution on Main Street,” an online series chronicling the winner’s journey to overcome the biggest obstacles facing its business community, with help from “Shark Tank” star Robert Herjavec and Deluxe Corporation executive Amanda Brinkman. The competition is run by Deluxe Corporation, a marketing and financial services company.

Winning would boost revitalization efforts already underway in Bristol, a small borough located midway between Philadelphia and New York along the Delaware River that has struggled to bounce back from the decades-long sleep into which it fell when steel mills closed.

“I’ve seen many efforts to improve our downtown area, from an elected official standpoint, since 1986,” Mayor Joe Saxton said. “We’re always on the cusp of being the go-to place.”

But the borough’s journey in recent months was cause for celebration on Feb. 9, when the nonprofit civic group Raising the Bar sponsored a party titled “We’ve Already Won!” to watch Brinkman and Herjavec narrow the candidate pool down from eight to five on Facebook Live.

“People are coming together and thinking positively about the town and its future,” said Bill Pezza, chairman of Raising the Bar. “This process has already put us in a good place.”

Out of 14,000 nominations, Bristol was one of the initial eight finalists selected to advance in November. Brinkman and a team of people cut the group down to five after visiting each town to determine where they could have the biggest impact.

Now it’s up to America to decide who makes the final cut. Voting began on Feb. 9, and runs until Feb. 16.

To heighten the borough’s chances of winning, Pezza and Raising the Bar began shoring up support even before learning they made the final five. This involved reaching out to the Rotary Club of Bristol, Bristol Lions Club, Lower Bucks Hospital, Lower Bucks County Chamber of Commerce, and major employers, among others, with the hope that they would spread the word to their respective constituencies.

“All we had to do on Feb. 9 was say ‘OK, we’re in, and it’s time to vote,’” Pezza said.

The goal is to hit 100,000 votes, which, for a borough of less than 10,000, will take some doing. But Pezza points to the city of Wabash, Ind., which became last year’s winner by doing just that. Wabash’s population is just over 10,000.

The rules of the contest allow people to vote once per day on every device they have, meaning a person with a smartphone and a laptop can put forth two votes per day. With all of Bucks County behind the effort, the votes will add up, Pezza maintains.

Bristol Borough Council President Ralph DiGuiseppe seconded that belief.

“This is a well-oiled machine right now, and everyone’s doing their part,” he said. “I really believe we’re going to win.”

Confidence is a new feeling for the community, which has seen businesses come and go over the years. Raising the Bar and the council have been working to change that; both parties drew up an economic development plan in 2013 aimed at tuning up and marketing the borough as a fun and picturesque place to live work and play.

The fruits of their labor were especially visible last year when about 16 businesses opened in the borough. Prior to that, officials said the borough saw just one or two set up shop per year.

What’s more DiGuiseppe said, is that the borough received about $3 million in grants to add a pier and more than two dozen boat slips on the Delaware River, with the aim of driving more people and businesses to the downtown area. Construction is currently underway.

This momentum is part of what drew Deluxe to Bristol.

“There’s just something really exciting happening there and the community is really behind it — and that’s a huge part of this program,” said Brinkman, who serves as Deluxe’s chief brand and communications officer. “We’re looking for a community that already understands and values their small businesses.”

Last year, Brinkman and Herjavec worked with the city of Wabash to enhance the physical appearance of its downtown area, and provided business and marketing advice to a select number of businesses. Ellen’s Bridal & Dress Boutique, one of the businesses featured in that season, saw sales increase by more than 300 percent after Brinkman and Herjavec helped improve its website and searchability.

“We took something that was good and we helped to make it a little bit better,” Herjavec said.

Win or lose, Pezza believes the competition sparked an enthusiasm that’s here to stay. As of Feb. 12, the borough was in the lead for most votes.

“When you give people a chance to step up, they do,” Pezza said. “People are going crazy now, and that's a good thing.”

Anyone can vote at smallbusinessrevolution.org. The winner of the competition will be announced on Feb. 22. 

February 13, 2017 - 5:07pm