The cozy, tree-lined streets of small town America are at the heart of what a chamber of commerce hopes to accomplish. When you’re trying to draw residents to your events, shoppers to your stores, and get people outside to visit your attractions, all while competing in a modern online marketplace, the importance of chambers in these communities cannot be overstated.
Walk toward the center of Ligonier, Pennsylvania, and you’ll be transported back in time. This town lives and breathes American history. From the French and Indian War-era Fort Ligonier to the historic bandstand that sits in the town square known as The Diamond, Ligonier is a tourism community that relies on everyone working together to help maintain robust activity in a town with an aging populace.
Susan Grunstra, Executive Director of the Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce, moved to the area with her husband about ten years ago. The moment they arrived in town it felt like home. “We were looking for a place to move … and we fell in love with the area. We drove in from the north, so we came in to Ligonier and stopped at the stop sign and looked at The Diamond and looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, we want to live here,’” says Grunstra.
She was originally hired as an executive assistant for the chamber in 2011. A year and a half later she and her husband relocated, but then another 18 months later they returned to Ligonier where Grunstra was invited back to resume her role. “At the end of 2015 I was asked to be the interim director when our executive director left and then I was officially made executive director in February of 2016,” says Grunstra.
The chamber currently sits at around 360 members, but they are working on a campaign to increase that number by offering what they call community memberships, or memberships for non-business people who want to support the town. “We have a lot of folks who are professional people that don’t work in Ligonier, they’re employed elsewhere, and this is a way that they can still support Ligonier,” says Grunstra. “We also have a lot of folks who have a second home or a summer home in Ligonier. It’s a way for them to be connected with what’s happening in Ligonier. It’s also a great way for our retired businesspeople to still be involved in the business community.”
Because the town relies so much on tourism, the chamber functions more like a visitor’s bureau than as a typical business-centric chamber of commerce. “We try and keep our members involved in the community,” says Grunstra. “We try and promote our members outside of the area to give visitors and interested people who may be coming to the area reasons to shop in Ligonier, stay in Ligonier, visit Ligonier.”
The town has a lot to offer, says Grunstra. “We’ve got museums. We’ve got Fort Ligonier. We’ve got attractions, historic [attractions]. We’ve got art. We’ve got shopping and dining. It’s just a different sort of place than a typical business-centric sort of chamber. And that’s what we promote.”
And promote they do.
“We try really hard to help our businesses get their brand or their signature take out into the world,” says Grunstra. “So we have a lot of very interesting boutique-type stores. We have small businesses that are very craft-centric. We have a lot of service businesses. We keep their names out there. We have a tremendous number of very active nonprofit organizations in this area. We keep their name out there. We try to make sure that we are as much of an information clearinghouse for all of our businesses as we can be. It’s really important for us to let people know that we’re not just a sleepy little town on Route 30, somewhere between Pittsburgh and the rest of Pennsylvania. There’s a lot here to offer, and here’s what it is, and here’s what’s going on, and these are great reasons to make that turn off of Route 30 and explore our area.”
Without a notable industry in the area, the businesses face some challenges. “You have to be more aware of what challenges small business owners face,” says Grunstra. “It’s a slightly different focus than corporate or industrial businesses because—I mean, the economy affects everybody. But the economy affects small businesses, and many of my small businesses are seasonal or affected by seasonality because we function as a tourist area, so you have to keep those things in mind and try and do what works best for your group of businesses in the community.”
This focus on promoting their seasonal businesses folds right into their event schedule.
“Every year, the chamber hosts fourteen or fifteen … summer band concerts,” says Grunstra. “We [also] do eleven events that bring people into town throughout the year. We’re also involved with Fort Ligonier Days, which is our big, signature community event in October. So we try to bring people in during all four seasons for different reasons, to different places throughout the community and just kind of act as that central hub of information.”
With Fort Ligonier Days comes a lot of challenges; but they’re the good kind of challenges. “Typically we have somewhere in the neighborhood of over 100,000 people come through Ligonier in three days,” says Grunstra. “So it is definitely a big business weekend for everybody in the community.”
Originally a chamber event, it eventually got so big they needed help from the town. “The chamber started the festival in 1960, and it grew and, over time, got bigger and bigger,” says Grunstra. “It was decided in the late 1990s to incorporate the event in order to better be able to reach out for other sources of funding that the chamber is not able to, because of its particular corporate status, there’s funding that we’re just not able to reach out for. So the event was incorporated as a separate entity in the late 1990s, so the chamber still works with the corporation that runs the festival, providing a lot of administrative support.”
This is an interesting example of how a chamber and town can work together to be successful. Everyone takes ownership, everyone helps, everyone succeeds. “We’re sort of like the central clearinghouse for everything,” says Grunstra. “We’re the people who answer the phones and, hopefully, have the answers to the questions.”
That’s not their only big event, however. “In January, we have an ice fest. We have a weekend in January where we do over 50 ice sculptures around Ligonier,” says Grunstra. “This past year, it was 70 degrees both days, so the first round of ice sculptures, the ones that went out on Saturday, were almost gone by Sunday. And normally, when the guys are carving, one of the things we do on Sunday is a speed carving contest between four of the ice carvers of the company we use, and then the folks in the audience vote for their favorite ice sculpture. Normally, when the guys are carving ice for the speed carving contest, they’re bundled up. They’re in coveralls, the whole deal. This year, they were in short-sleeved shirts and jeans carving ice. It was just crazy.”
Amidst all of this, they face some real challenges: an aging population, and trying to find the next generation of business owners. “Our signature store on The Diamond has been family-owned for 117 years, but there’s no next generation,” says Grunstra. “So who’s going to come in and take over that business? Or is someone going to come in and take over that business? So, succession, I think, is a big issue for this community. The other thing affecting a lot of businesses, of course, is the whole internet shopping, digital connection. So, is the next generation actually coming here to shop? Some of them are, some of them aren’t. And that’s a concern. On the other hand, we’re still driven by tourism, so it’s kind of two sides of the same coin.”
The question isn’t just who is going to be the next business owners?, but also, who is going to work for them? “Good employees is a big issue in our region,” says Grunstra. “We’re simultaneously working on a comprehensive plan, not only between our borough and the surrounding township, we’re also working on one for the county. So, there are a lot of things that are being brought up and addressed, not only at the local, town level; they’re also being brought up and addressed at the county level. And big ones are being attractive to younger people, having jobs that are attractive to younger people, transportation is an issue because we are so spread out. And the fact that our population is aging and declining, so there are a lot of things swirling around there being discussed and what do we need to look at and change in order to be an attractive place to live, to open a business, to work? All of those things. So, it’s kind of an interesting time to be here, working on all of those projects.”
Being just 50 miles from Pittsburgh, there is some opportunity. For a small business owner, it would certainly be more affordable to open a business in Ligonier than Pittsburgh, and with their robust tourism, there is opportunity. One thing they’re doing to promote local business is a spin on the typical shop local campaign: shop local bingo.
“People can pick up a bingo card at locations around town, and then, in order to get a bingo, they need to go into shops and find an object—it’s the same object in any store but it’s somewhere different—and once they locate the object, then they get a stamp on their card at that location. And because all the cards are random, you and your best friend, even if you’re doing the game together, your bingos are going to be entirely different. And then there will be prize drawings throughout the summer and a grand prize drawing Labor Day weekend. We’re hoping it’s just a fun summer event that, if you’ve never been to Ligonier before, if you come to Ligonier all the time, maybe you go into stores you don’t normally shop in or you didn’t know were here, and it’s just a great way to get people circulating around town a little more.”
Apart from events, they have a lot to be proud of in Ligonier. One of Grunstra’s favorite initiatives is a program they call RAMS, Recognizing Amazing Merchants and Students. To hear her explain, “this is a maker program, so throughout the year, the students from elementary level on up, design and make items and then have a show where participating merchants come in and purchase merchandise that the students have made and then sell it in their businesses. We have a kick-off night that we call RAMS Night. It’s stop-and-shop night, so we mark the locations with balloons, we have music on The Diamond provided by students, and then showcase the student-made merchandise. And the senior high students run the company that takes care of the manufacturing, the marketing, the accounting, the distribution, the whole deal. So it’s a very hands-on, very in-depth project that helps kids understand the business of creating, making, selling, and distributing products.”
With twelve to fifteen business involved, the program has been well received. It’s a great way to make connections throughout the community. Connecting businesses to the schools, businesses to the community, and schools to the community.
Every small town in America has their own story, their own history, their own meaning. Ligonier, PA holds a special place in many hearts. From their rich history to events on The Diamond, it’s easy to see why. To learn more about the Ligonier Valley Chamber of Commerce, visit www.ligonier.com.