A bright red door in the middle of a green facade gives way to the inside of a traditional-looking Irish pub. The wooden chairs and tables look fairly modest, resting beneath chandeliers made of antlers.
This is McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub and Whiskey Bar, located in the heart of Bethlehem’s historic North Side. In the same building to the right of the pub is Donegal Square, where shoppers can find clothes, crafts and other knickknacks inspired by Ireland and the British Isles.
Both businesses are owned by Neville Gardner, the chairman of the board of the Downtown Bethlehem Association. Concordantly, both are members of this organization which acts as a business advocate, supporting local stores and merchants in downtown Bethlehem and hosting events throughout the year to generate money for the historic district in the form of marketing.
“The mission of (Downtown Bethlehem Association) is to try and bring business and people to the downtown and actually both North and South Side, although I have to say most of our membership currently is on the North Side,” said Gardner, who is a crucial part of the idea stream for events.
Located on the corner of West Broad and Main streets, the Downtown Bethlehem Association coordinates events to bring foot traffic to downtown Bethlehem. Concert series, Christmas villages and food festivals are different ways the organization accomplishes this goal since its inception over a decade ago.
Just one council of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Bethlehem Association is a branch of the organization’s vast reach, which covers eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. For a membership fee, a business can join over 5,000 others in the United States’ seventh largest chamber of commerce, which acts as a business advocacy and networking membership organization.
“We have our newer website since 2016, and we also have a large presence of Facebook,” said Tim Brooks, manager of the Downtown Bethlehem Association. “So, in all of these things we do is to support the small-business owners in the downtown.”
Money to fund events comes to the Downtown Bethlehem Association from the City of Bethlehem via the Chamber of Commerce. The staff is on the payroll of the Chamber, which also provides office space for the Downtown Bethlehem Association.
The rest of it, ideas and inspiration on how to bring more attention to the downtown, comes from the business community.
“As president of the organization, I probably help come up with many ideas and ways to make the organization tick,” Gardner said. “Our Tunes at Twilight, our Christmas city village, I mean a lot of these events, things that we do, are joint efforts, and even the ideas of making them happen have been joint efforts.”
Gina Martens, senior vice president of member relations for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, said marketing and exposure are some benefits of Downtown Bethlehem Association members.
Businesses are listed in a directory, easily accessible to consumers and other merchants alike. They are also invited to networking events to bring business leaders together.
“Especially many of the members in our downtowns, in our urban cores in regard to their restaurant or retail store, many of them are looking for more exposure,” Martens said. “More customers through their door.”
Like Gardner, Ann Marie Supinski is a local business owner with a leadership role at the Downtown Bethlehem Association as a member of the board. She is the founder of AM Luxe Apparel, an elegant clothing store situated just feet away from the Downtown Bethlehem Association’s offices.
She said the organization continuously works to generate new ideas that may drive traffic downtown, while strengthening businesses to keep people coming around.
“People want to come downtown to shop, they love the historic experience on the North Side, and then with that, they want to eat, drink, spend time with family,” Supinski said.
Brooks said the Downtown Bethlehem Association is coordinating an event in some capacity every day, whether that be processing contracts for artists to perform at a festival or local food vendors to distribute samples at an event. For the most part, it’s a busy day, he said.
In the eyes of Gardner, this work never carries a dull moment. He said they are always trying to figure out things they can do to carry out the Downtown Bethlehem Association’s mission.
“As a retailer, obviously I am acutely aware of all the trends and business, whether business is good, whether business is bad,” he said.
Supinski said she believes the local community wants to be downtown and wants to support the downtown.
To make sure people are aware of what’s happening, the Downtown Bethlehem Association uses social media, its website and word-of-mouth to drive people downtown. Supinski said understanding the value of the business owners is essential.
“The ability for us to constantly be partnering with other businesses and to help the Downtown Bethlehem Association’s role is how we drive more of that experience downtown,” she said.