by Charlie Andrews
In the 1970’s the only efforts to market Carlisle were by the merchants themselves. For many years they met once a month for a breakfast meeting at the old Bellaire House Restaurant, first as the Central Carlisle Business Association then as the Downtown Business Association. Essentially, the marketing efforts were of group advertising in the local newspapers and radio, holiday specials, and a one big annual event, “Sidewalk Sales” in July. The effect of two malls on the edges of Carlisle had already wrought dramatic change in the downtown (and in downtowns across America). Stores like Montgomery Wards, Penney’s, The Bon-Ton, Wengers, etc., moved to the malls. The downtown still had a lot to offer in its owner-operated stores and restaurants within a beautiful and historic downtown setting.
It was obvious, however, that marketing efforts needed to be increased to attract new businesses and people. We needed a person who was paid to work on these efforts constantly and consistently, rather than relying on volunteer merchants who already had a lot to do just running their businesses.
In 1980, the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce, under the leadership of then president Len Doran, proposed the formation of an organization and the hiring of an individual whose job would be to coordinate existing marketing efforts and develop new ones. They would create new opportunities to celebrate Carlisle and bring outside people to the downtown. There would be a board of directors with regular meetings, and various committees would be developed for events, beautification of the downtown, economic development, membership, etc. Initially, the Chamber of Commerce and the Borough each contributed money toward a matching grant from the state’s Department of Community Affairs (today called the Department of Community and Economic Development). The grant was made for each of three years, and after that the state grant ended. Local businesses and industries were also solicited and donated over $25,000. The idea was that after the grant ended, Carlisle would see the benefits of the program and continue to support it.
In Carlisle’s case, we did, but a number of communities across Pennsylvania didn’t. Many essentially lost their downtowns as far as economic effectiveness or meaning to their communities. Carlisle’s program, started in 1981, was initially called the Carlisle Economic Development Center. Today it is called the Downtown Carlisle Association (DCA).
Since its formation, the DCA has continued to develop group advertising ideas, new events (Octubafest, Street Hoops, Corvette Parade, etc.), financial assistance programs for facades and signage, and new marketing tools in the form of a Carlisle brochure and video, etc. Originally the goal was to draw people from the surrounding local areas to Carlisle. As the years have gone on though, it has became apparent that for Carlisle to really thrive and prosper, we need to draw people to Carlisle from out of the area, i.e. Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, northern Virginia, etc. At the same time, we also need to attract competent merchants to the downtown.
Other, positive developments in the downtown have been the Carlisle Theater, the downtown hotel, and the parking garage as well as the Carlisle Arts Learning Center and the expansion of the Cumberland County Historical Society. Additionally, we are seeing the redevelopment of the old Woolworth’s building and the fire ravaged properties on the corner of High and Pitt Streets.
From the DCA’s beginning in 1981 and into the 1990’s, Carlisle had turned its downtown around and improved it significantly.