Lititz vs. Watkins Glen Lititz leads voting for ‘America’s Coolest Small Town’

By on January 23, 2013

By: RICHARD REITZ Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer

How cool is Lititz?

Well if early voting returns are an indication, Lititz may be America’s Coolest Small Town.

Budget Travel Magazine is sponsoring its annual America’s Coolest Small Towns contest, and last week, online voting began with 15 finalists going head-to-head for support from residents and fans of their communities. Lititz was the only Pennsylvania location nominated for the honor.

"We are putting on the full court press to win this contest," said Kelly Withum, executive director for Venture Lititz, which is spearheading this effort in cooperation with Lititz Borough. "We have been pushing it on social media, contacting friends on Facebook… everything we can think of to get the word out."

This is the eighth year Budget Travel is sponsoring the nationwide contest. Recent winners include Hammondsport, N.Y. and Beaufort, N.C. (2012 tie); Lewisburg, W.Va. (2011); Saugatuck, Mich. (2010); and Owego, N.Y. (2009).

Will Lititz join that list? The early returns are promising. As of Wednesday morning, Lititz was climbing steadily and leading the pack with 23.5% of the total vote, leading second place Watkins Glen by a comfortable 9.6%.

Voters are permitted to vote once a day for their favorite location. Anyone can vote or learn more about the finalists on Budget Travel’s website:

budgettravel.com/contest/americas-coolest-small-towns-2013,14/

Laura Michonski, executive digital editor for Budget Travel Magazine, said there were two requirements for nomination. First, it must have a population under 10,000. "And, of course, it needs to be ‘cool.’"

So, what makes a town cool?

"We look for towns that have that indescribable something — independent shops, a sense of energy, culture… delicious coffee," Michonski said. "In other words, cool doesn’t necessarily mean quaint. We look for towns with an edge and a heart."

Lititz residents are more than happy to tell you why they think Lititz is cool.

"We are a true town, not just a crossroads," said Gaylord Poling, co-owner of Tiger’s Eye in downtown Lititz with his wife Nadine. "People live in Lititz, work in Lititz, shop in Lititz and play in Lititz. There is a way of life people desire, and they see it right here."

Poling credited community groups like Lititz Improvement for having the vision to recognize historic value in many buildings during the 1970s and 1980s that might have otherwise been demolished. Those restoration initiatives shaped the way Main Street looks today, he said.

Lititz Mayor and Fire Chief Ron Oettel added that the borough’s rich history and special attractions like the Sturgis Pretzel House, Wilbur Chocolate and Linden Hall School for Girls create an appealing community that instills pride in its citizens.

"Lititz is one of the few surviving true communities out there," Oettel said. "I think we are blessed to have people who care about each other and maintain the vibrancy and spirit of our town."

"It’s all about what’s happening now in Lititz," Withum said. "Our businesses and service organizations work together to make things happen, which is wonderful."

Lititz has over 70 independent retailers and restaurants that add to the vitality of the community, she said. "Lititz has become a fantastic foodie town."

"The term ‘authentic’ describes Lititz perfectly," added Karen Weibel, Lititz Borough Council president. "This isn’t a Disney-oriented theme park; Lititz is the real deal. Tourism is certainly a focus of our economy, but our residents are using the town shops and eateries."

"Lititz has a little bit of everything," said Sue Barry, Lititz Borough manager. "We have history, the music industry, Lititz Springs Park, craft beers, family activities. It’s a real town."

The quest to become America’s Coolest Small Town started last fall with a letter of nomination that Barry wrote and submitted to Budget Travel.

"Lititz hosts over 30 events in the downtown every year and was named a Distinctive Destination by the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation," she wrote. She highlighted the way Lititz blends the old with the new, from its dedication to historical preservation, to serving as the home base for innovators in the music industry — Clair Global, Tait Towers and Atomic Design.

Nowhere is that blending more apparent than at the General Sutter Inn. "The partners of this very Victorian hotel have transformed the third floor into the Rock Lititz Penthouse, featuring contemporary guest quarters decorated with Rock Lititz show memorabilia," Barry wrote.

A renowned Fourth of July celebration, a popular farmers market, and the lively evening of arts and entertainment known as Second Friday further add to the charm of this town.

Withum said word about the contest was quiet until December, when they learned that Lititz was selected for the competition’s short list and asked to submit a video and photos. It was only last week that they learned that Lititz was among the top 15 finalists.

Since then, a concentrated effort to get out the vote has ensued, and has been spreading rapidly over Facebook. The Downtown Lititz group page has been posting daily reminders and urging supporters to share the word with friends.

Twitter has also been abuzz with support for the effort from local retailers, residents and ex pats. Warwick grad and Montreal Impact soccer star Andrew Wenger tweeted about the contest on Sunday and encouraged fans to vote for Lititz. Even MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" co-host (and Warwick Township resident) Mika Brzezinski expressed her support with an "I love Lititz" tweet on Monday.

Poling himself emailed about 1,000 of his friends, local merchants, even legislators… letting them know about the contest and urging them to vote every day.

Lititz artist Bill Dussinger has also created a poster to support the campaign, designed for downtown retailers to post in their storefronts.

The contest continues through Feb. 14, and proponents of the initiative realize that they need to sustain their efforts over the next three weeks in order to maintain that lead.

"We are highly honored to have this recognition," Weibel said. "Any focus on Lititz brings focus on this area as a whole. Plus, it’s fun. This has been a lot of fun."

"This is great for the entire region," Poling added. "Visitors aren’t going to spend 100 percent of their time and money in Lititz. They’re going to visit other places in this area."

"It’s been exciting," Oettel said. "We all know what a gem we have here in Lititz. I travel a lot with my work and I see a lot of small towns. There are some very nice places, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like Lititz."

Michonski said they use the audience vote as a guide to determine the finalists, but also look for diversity in geography, attractions, architecture and more when making the determination.

"We start by inviting our audience to nominate towns that fit the criteria," she said. "From there, we review the nominations, along with gems that we discover on our own, to narrow the list down to the finalists."

She said the winning towns are typically featured in an article in Budget Travel Magazine that year. Also, the contest has proven to be an effective way for Budget Travel to engage readers through social media.

"This is an incredibly successful franchise for us and this year we had our largest turnout ever — 96,605 votes and 2,415 comments in support of 924 towns," Michonski said.

She said their goal with the contest is twofold. "It is to reveal our nation’s little known gems, and to give a voice to our audience and to let them tell us about their favorite places."

Win or lose, Poling says the effort is great for all of the nominated towns. "It’s a win-win for everybody," he said. More COOLEST SMALL TOWN, page A7