The Small Business Revolution
Featuring Fidelity Savings and Loan Association of Buck County
The sun glistens like diamonds off of the Delaware River.
A train storms by Bristol Station, used by hundreds daily.
Two boxers spar in a cramped gym.
Timeworn rowhomes powdered with snow hug the narrow streets.
A barber styles a smock-draped customer’s hair, and a worker with a snow shovel and a window washer labor to spruce up the sidewalks and storefronts of Main Street.
This collage of images is part of Bristol Borough’s signature entry in the nationwide Main Street Contest, sponsored by Deluxe Corporation.
The video’s kaleidoscope of defining moments captures the spirit of the compact, close-knit borough of Bristol, a self-described “gritty little town” along the Delaware, 30-odd miles northeast of Philadelphia. The town shares “Philly’s” bevy of trademark cultural addictions: cheesesteaks, salted soft pretzels, the Eagles, the Phillies, the Flyers, and the Sixers. Like movie-legend Rocky and his iconic ascent up the steps of the Art Museum, Bristol was once a thriving town during colonial times and the Industrial Revolution, as the center of canal and rail traffic on the route to Trenton and New York City. Today, it is a faded, but still spunky underdog, working hard to beat the odds and come back a champion.
And perhaps that is why the drama was sky-high when they decided to compete for a half a million-dollar grand prize, and exposure on a national business reality TV series.
An Eagerly Awaited Announcement
On the February day that the winner of the Small Business Revolution’s grand prize was announced, TV news crews peppered Mill Street, the main drag of this historic borough, and excitement hung in the air like the American flags that fly peacefully over so many Bristol churches, schools and storefronts.
After a week of frenzied voting by many community bankers, bank customers and the larger public, Bristol Borough garnered the most votes, leading to that coveted $500,000 grand prize and a town-sized extreme makeover, ala Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
An anchorman from one local TV station likened the triumph to winning the Super Bowl. The thrill is still in the air, and has already galvanized a borough, the community banking industry, and everyone who believes in small business as the backbone of the American economy.
Rick Eble, President, CEO and CFO of Fidelity Savings and Loan – Bristol’s original community bank – was part of the crowd in the packed Bristol Riverside Theatre on Announcement Day. He remembers when the lights dimmed, the spotlights raced across the stage, and then BOOM! – the lights landed on the Deluxe representative in the room, silently signifying that Bristol had won. The room erupted into cheers, applause, hugs and high-fives. It was a goosebumps moment.
Eble salutes Bill Pezza as one of Bristol’s most spirited cheerleaders.
Pezza, the workhorse Chairman of Bristol’s economic development arm, “Raising the Bar,” said the revolution started when Deluxe Corporation invited people across America, via Facebook, to nominate their town to win $500,000 and a face-lift guided by Robert Herjacev of the popular TV show SHARK TANK.
Pezza and his fellow “Bar” members encouraged everyone they knew to nominate Bristol.
“The response was very, very big,” he said with understated modesty. Ultimately, 102 people nominated the Bucks County enclave, which took some effort, because it involved crafting an original narrative.
All in all, Deluxe Corporation received 14,000 nominations of 3,500 towns throughout the country. Bristol made it to the short list. Then the producers called Pezza for a 45-minute interview. He figures he “must have done ok.”
Producers told him, “Your citizens really caught our attention with the number of nominations we received.”
The crew then visited the eight towns on the short list for a three-day period and took hours of footage.
“It was very cool,” Pezza admitted.
From those eight, contest organizers whittled the field to five. Bristol again made the cut.
Then online voting determined the winner. Supporters could only vote once per device per day for the specified time period.
“We started mobilizing every network of people we knew,” Pezza said. Nearly one million votes were cast for all the nominees, he said.
On Feb. 22, the announcement of the top vote-getter was simulcast in the five finalist towns.
When the Deluxe star appeared on stage, Bristolians knew they had won.
In fact, she had difficulty announcing their triumph because the theatre was rocked with cheers.
“The theater was packed. The reaction was unbelievable,” Pezza said. “People cheered for three minutes straight. That was nice!”
The producers returned to the town in mid-March, allowing Bristol businesses to nominate themselves for specialized help. An eager 113 businesses nominated themselves, and the producers narrowed that field to 20. Next, those businesses went through what Deluxe calls a “speed-dating” process, as the business leaders provided oral support for their applications.
Ultimately, six applications will be chosen.
Pezza emphasized that this contest may be re-inventing six businesses, but the victory has “town-wide benefits.” He also explained that no one is handed a stack of money; most of the prize money arrives in the form of services.
For example, for last year’s winner – Wabash, Indiana – the show accomplished four things, Pezza enumerated. First, Deluxe marketed the town, through tasteful billboards along major highways and brochures. For Bristol, that would mean the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-95, Pezza guessed. Second, they marketed Main Street and the cross-streets. For Bristol, that area would encompass Mill and Radcliffe Streets, where Fidelity Savings and Loan is located. Third, they helped advise individual businesses, with marketing, website design, search optimization and other tools. Fourth, they undertook a capital project, transforming a rundown public space into a park.
Wabash still benefits from the Small Business Revolution, Pezza said. A tattoo parlor run by a pastor, a pub, a bridal shop, a vintage thrift shop, and a custom sheet metal shop are all running full steam ahead.
The businesses they will pick in Bristol will be based on three factors: 1) need; 2) what Pezza calls “do-ability” and 3) a compelling story.
Final episodes will air on the Hulu network in the fall, with six of the eight parts zeroing in on the individual businesses.
The prize transcends the half-million-dollar jackpot, Pezza said.
“The notoriety for the county in general–you can’t put a dollar value on that,” he said. “There has already been a measurable uptick in attention and visitors along Mill Street. We’re excited. The energy is amazing. To win a national contest like this, people are feeling really good about themselves,” Pezza said.
Bristol’s Storied Past
Pezza retold the classic tale of Bristol, remembering its heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“We were the commercial hub of Lower Bucks County, pre-mall and pre-big-box stores.”
“We’ve always been a hard-working, blue-collar town. The sidewalks were jammed on Friday nights after payday.”
“Downtown was the place to shop, but the malls took the town down,” Fidelity’s Eble agreed. In the late ‘60s, U.S. Steel employed 10,000 residents, just eight miles from the heart of the borough.
Then the mills closed, the malls opened, and the downtown started dying a slow death.
“When U.S. Steel closed, the town went into a deep sleep,” Pezza said. “Now we’ve experienced a bit of a resurgence. We’ve hung on.”
Residents realize the never-say-die town may never fully regain its former luster, but in its re-awakening, “We see our future as revitalizing the streets to appeal to the arts, restaurants and retail.”
Bristol’s 330-year trajectory epitomizes the fading of the American dream, like so many small towns across America.
Founded in 1681, it is one of oldest boroughs in Pennsylvania. The original town was only 12 blocks, and was home to John Thompson Dorrance, founder of the Campbell Soup Company.
The 1700s were deemed the “Golden Age” of Bristol, with its fertile soil, growing crops, and booming industry.
After decades of economic decline, linked to the loss of the coal industry, it is home to fewer than 10,000 people today.
King George II Inn is the anchor of the business district, dating back to 1681. As the oldest continuously operating inn in the nation, (debuting even before there WAS a nation) it has five dining rooms and a tavern, and is rumored to house the ghosts of some of its more prestigious past guests, including George Washington and Lafayette.
The time-honored headquarters of Fidelity was home to the Spanish Ambassador, Senor Don Louis de Onis. The structure remains an architectural gem, 250 years later, graced with winding walkways, decorative bridges and lush shrubbery.
History has it that the wedding of the ambassador’s daughter provoked a town-wide buzz when she was married to a Spanish military officer by proxy. Called into battle, the groom was not present at his own wedding in Bristol. Nevertheless, the wedding was a lavish, late-night affair that attracted the elite of Spanish high society to the humble little borough.
In 1834, Bristol Borough became a supply port, and an integral part of the development of the American Industrial Revolution. Between World Wars I and II, 80 acres of shipyard built amphibious planes, cargo ships and merchant vessels.
Already Making Change
Spend a year in Bristol, and your calendar will be filled with multi-ethnic festivals, toasting the Irish, the Italians, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and a rainbow of other cultures.
The Bristol Borough Business Association sponsors First Fridays on the Delaware, at Mill Street and Bristol Wharf.
New townhouses, and a major dock project along the picturesque waterfront are already underway to bring boaters into town for dinner and drinks. An art gallery just opened. Pezza’s son and daughter-in-law are unveiling a wood-fired, brick-oven pizza place.
Empty storefronts are down; new businesses by young entrepreneurs are up.
Calm Waters’ Coffee Roasters’ often sponsors live music, and the Anchor yacht club offers Delaware River sailboat races. The Doo Wop in the Park festival attracts enthusiastic crowds.
All signal that Bristol is the Comeback Kid of boroughs –a monument to resilience, with a contagious team spirit.
“This contest is in harmony with what borough government has been doing all along,” Pezza said. “The borough has been 100 percent cooperative,” even closing the streets for film crews.
“The borough is doing so many progressive things.”
“There is a real synergy going on here and it all is coming together for the benefit of the citizens,” Pezza said.
Other towns are wondering how they can replicate that Bristol synergy.
Pezza knows how easy it is for local officials to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of governing. Elected with forward-thinking ideas and lofty ideals, they often get sidetracked by day-to-day setbacks, like streetlights and potholes.
“They can’t do the visionary things,” likening it to a school principal full of innovative theories who is forced to deal with leaky roofs instead of robust learning.
“The marriage between the volunteerism in this town and the acceptance in this borough is what makes this thing so special,” Pezza said.
Although the bar is set high when it comes to economic development, to be on the Bristol rebirth squad, the bar is set at a welcomingly low level: if you work, you are in, Pezza says. The welcome mat is out for anyone who wants to help him promote tourism, the arts, dining, economic development and historic preservation.
Winning the contest is just the capstone on a long effort to rekindle the vitality of the town.
Pezza said his group helped form a 12-member Economic Development Advisory panel to advise and assist new businesses with navigating the local government approval process, accessing available real estate, finding a listing of contractors, attorneys and other local professionals, compiling a guide to services provided by local lenders, improving social media resources and training, opening up access to local press and advertising contracts, and giving guidance on historic preservation and building façades.
And ever the skilled salesman, Pezza offers a word of welcome for community banks as well.
Citing the Community Reinvestment Act, he said, “Banks have a responsibility to invest in the community. And from Bristol Borough, we say: ‘We know how to bring projects to fruition.’” He is eager to link investors to loans.
It’s an interesting journey for a town that inspired a popular dance 56 years ago.
In 1961, Bristol gained national attention when the “Bristol Stomp,” a popular song by the Dovells, reached the number two slot on the Billboard pop chart. Chubby Checker released his own jazzed-up version a year later.
The “Bristol Stomp” remains a Philadelphia-area favorite, and its familiar rhythms often ring out over parades, ceremonies, high school dances, wedding receptions and sporting events, prodding lines of dancers to hop and clap in unison.
Community Bankers and the Bold Experiment
The small-but-mighty Bristol is rising to national prominence again, and that melodic unity has enveloped the whole town and its eclectic melting pot of residents again.
That goal was attained in part thanks to a “Get out the vote” push from Fidelity CEO Rick Eble; Nick DiFrancesco, President and CEO of PACB; Rory Ritrievi, President/CEO of Mid Penn Bank; PACB Chairman and President/CEO of Coatesville Savings Bank, Fred Henrich: Lori Cestra, COO of Enterprise Bank; and others.
They all helped the votes pour in.
Eble encouraged everyone to vote, through both the bank and his membership in Bristol Rotary.
When Nick DiFrancesco sent out an email to all PACB members asking them to vote for Bristol, Rory Ritrievi of Mid Penn Bank did a little research on the contest and the town. He was struck by how similar Bristol was to his bank’s scenic smalltown headquarters of Millersburg in Dauphin County and some of the other communities his bank serves. Like Fidelity, they serve mostly older communities, with a similar demographic, a declining population, and analogous challenges.
“I found the video on Bristol to be really touching and impactful for me,” Ritrievi said.
He voted several times a day, once from every device he had. He put it on his calendar and voted again. He asked his 250 employees to vote multiple times, too.
“We wanted to support a community like our own, and a bank like our own,” Ritrievei said.
“It says a lot about community bank employees and particularly Mid Penn employees,” that Bristol won. “We care about a community many of us never even heard of, and a bank we never heard of,” he added.
“They touched our professional heartstrings.”
Ritrievi said the word “grit” stuck out to him.
“I love gritty little towns. Steelton is a gritty town, and we’re the only bank left in Steelton. We never want to leave that town. I went to college in Pittsburgh. Although maybe not as gritty as it once was, Pittsburgh is a gritty town.”
Ritrievi found out that Bristol won through PACB. “I am so excited they won. We were all excited they won!”
“It’s fantastic news for Bristol. Next time I’m in the Philly area, I plan on visiting there.”
Ritrievi knows how important small business is to a small town.
Cestra also helped. “As a group of PACB members, we all have each other’s best interests at heart. And the minute we saw that contest, I immediately responded in support of a fellow community bank. It snowballed from there in terms of support.”
“I am thrilled they won,” she said. “You can’t help but put yourself into the shoes of other community bankers who are trying to expand their world and do what they do. It’s just wonderful they won.” She has a feeling Fidelity would do the same for its community banking neighbors.
Henrich and DiFrancesco visited Bristol on one of their bank visits.
“It is a quaint little town on the shores of the river and I got the impression they were looking for ways to get people to come back to town to visit and spend money. For the most part it seems to be a bedroom community without a whole lot of industry,” Henrich said.
Like Ritrievi, Henrich voted from three different computers each day for a week.
“I think it will be similar to the role Coatesville Savings Bank plays in Coatesville, although at least in Bristol there was another bank across the street. I don’t think the big banks want to waste their time on the little mom-and-pop shops that are necessary to help revitalize the town. The community banks thrive on those small relationships that help to build community as well as the bottom line,” Henrich said.
“I think it will encourage other small towns to test the waters, too. The ole ‘if Bristol can do it, so can we’ mentality,” Henrich continued. “I hope the plans they have to revitalize the areas along the river actually pan out for the city. I’d go back and visit them.”
“People need a reason to visit. Whether it’s a restaurant, art, or a show, they’ll need something unique. Otherwise, why leave the house?” Henrich asked.
“PACB is proud of Bristol’s accomplishment and we wish them much success as they move forward with their plans,” Henrich said.
Fidelity Savings and Loan Association
If every revolution starts with a spark, that flame may have been lit by Fidelity Savings.
Founded 131 years ago, its only branch is right in Bristol, and is surrounded by several “big banks” – Wells Fargo and BB&T.
As the only community bank headquartered in Bristol, and as one of the self-proclaimed “shepherds” of the town voting, “We live and breathe the successes and failures of Bristol,” Eble said.
Fidelity Savings and Loan has 14 employees. The bank is very small; Eble said he is the only employee not from the Bristol area. But in typical Bristol fashion, they embraced him in a heartbeat.
Bristol is “a very historic town” and “the gateway from New York to Philly,” he said.
His building was built in 1681.
“It’s a very picturesque town, but the town has seen its share of problems,” Eble said.
With the contest, “Everybody has been really excited about the town and the event,” Eble said.
He has witnessed residents blowing horns up and down the street, and heard of several rallies, attracting more than 1,000 people, since the announcement.
With its only retail office and a loan center located in Bristol, “We have a strong market share here,” Eble said. “We have many customers in Bristol and are here to cater to their needs and to develop new relationships. We are the bank right here to help them with their dreams.”
Reawakening the Dream
With the Small Business Revolution, a remarkable feedback loop will include skilled entrepreneurs such as SHARK TANK’S Robert Herjavec, a Croatian-Canadian film producer who made his money in Internet security software.
Bristol calls itself the “best undiscovered treasure in the U.S.,” but this reality series will surely catapult them to fame, as the “gritty” town is discovered – or rediscovered – by residents, tourists, and businesses.
In this aspirational community, the sense of community is strong, and blossoming.
The town’s family of believers want to be a place where “hip meets history,” as one article said.
They are the little town that could, as entrepreneurs, merchants, chefs and artists unite to breathe new life into Bristol.
That palpable sense of community pride, exhibited that day in Bristol Riverside Theatre, will reverberate through the future, just like the Bristol Stomp swept through the nation’s hearts and dance halls a half century ago.
This community bank profile can be found featured in the April 2017 issue of Transactions. Would you like to receive a physical copy of the magazine each month? If so, please contact PACB today!