There’s a major event every month, if not every week,” says Mayor Fazzone.
“This ridiculous idea costs a fortune and will never work!” City of Burlington Mayor Dr. James A. Fazzone and Common Council members hear this and similar comments from naysayers every time they present another new concept for infrastructure upgrades, tourism programs, or other investment projects.
By John Alexander
Director of Public Affairs
City of Burlington
They keep the ideas and projects coming; however, and those ideas usually pay off. Since they began their new term in January, they have brought aboard the Liberty Belle (a 600-passenger riverboat caterer), acquired the 1850s Metropolitan Inn as a Tourism and Information Center, and committed $1.2 million in bond funds for the circa 1837 Lyceum Arts and Cultural Center. And that’s not all.
They also obtained funding and approval to build the new Burlington Greens Historical Miniature Golf Course, implemented over three new major fundraising events, and initiated many other investments that are all paying off or have the potential to bring in new revenues and improve the lives of residents and visitors.
Even before they took office in January 2008, Mayor Fazzone, his staff, and Council were talking to people such as Joe Garvey, owner and executive chef of the Liberty Belle, a 600-passenger riverboat caterer. Joe stated, “I was very drawn to this city on the Delaware because of its great downtown, its local newspaper the Burlington Gazette, and the willingness of its government to take a chance to support a new venture.” By May of this year, the city had signed an agreement with Garvey to lease him waterfront space at the foot of High Street (Burlington’s historical main street) in return for the city making sewer and water improvements. Since then, the Liberty Belle has collaborated with the city on several successful events.
“Everyone loves to go out on the water, and when you combine that with a popular event, such as our Fabulous GreaseBand concert fundraiser, there is great synergy,” said Fazzone. That event, which sold out 450 tickets, netted over $6,000 to benefit the Tourism office.
The city has sponsored and coordinated several other events that have benefited specific causes while providing entertainment for residents and great public relations awareness for the City of Burlington as a great place to visit and maybe stay.
Eric Berry, Business Administrator said, “Our new marketing campaign that we weave into all of our communications is ‘a great place to spend a day… or a lifetime.’ Of course, we want visitors to hear this message, but more importantly, we want our residents to be proud of their city and tell their friends. They are our best salespeople, and they will find us our new residents and business investors.”
The City of Burlington has the great fortune to be rich in historical infrastructure, with over 45 historical sites that date back to the 1600s, including the residence of General Ulysses S. Grant, Captain James Lawrence, James Fenimore Cooper, Peggy Shippen (wife of Benedict Arnold), several underground railroad sites, and many businesses and residences from before and after the American Revolution. The Quakers settled Burlington, and their presence is strongly felt to this day. In 1677, William Penn signed the Concessions and Agreements, the constitution of West Jersey, which protected the rights of all races, sexes, and religions and supported early abolition efforts. This document, which was based on Quaker theology, is widely believed to have influenced famous visitor Benjamin Franklin, as many of its statements are paraphrased in the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution.
Burlington also boasts a large, attractive, and accessible riverfront on the Delaware River, known as the Promenade, which together with excellent parking and the downtown’s brick-paved sidewalks, can accommodate up to 20,000 guests during its major events, which often include fireworks displays over the water. Burlington is also easily accessible by New Jersey Transit’s River LINE, the Burlington-Bristol Bridge, and major highways such as Interstate 295, the NJ Turnpike, I-95 and State Highway Rt. 130.
Mayor Fazzone has taken advantage of and built on this infrastructure to increase awareness of his city. “We take every opportunity to brag about what we’re doing,” he says. “We are doing things that, for some reason, other towns just aren’t doing.” In addition to bringing in the Liberty Belle and acquiring the Tourism Center, he has proposed and gained Council approval to build an 18-hole miniature golf course that will include 8- to 10-foot scale replicas of the city’s important historical buildings.
“After people tour our historical district, and see sites such as Grant’s house, they can come down to the Greens and play golf in a miniature village that contains Grant’s house as well as our 1685 Revell House, our 1758 Library, our 1837 Lyceum Hall, and other major historical sites,” he says. “Beside the obvious educational benefits, it will give children and adults an inexpensive, wholesome activity in addition to the typical dining out and movies. We envision school trips, sponsored tournaments, fundraisers, and many tie-ins with our other events and programs.”
There are plenty of these events, too, and more are planned each year. In May, Burlington Day includes a blocked-off downtown with trolley rides, quilt show, and A Taste of Burlington, followed by FOP-sponsored Bike Night in June, with 10,000 motorcycle enthusiasts, food, and vendors. The summer concert series begins in July and provides weekly entertainment as well as major events such as the Downtown Car Show and GreaseBand fundraiser. In August, the Chamber of Commerce sponsors The Festival of Lights weekend carnival, decorated boat parade, concert, and fireworks display in August, and the Colonial Burlington Historical Society sponsors the 30-year-old Wood Street Fair craft show. Both of these events attract more that 20,000 visitors. In December, the city lights its 1500-foot main street during its annual treelighting followed by a widely attended holiday parade.
“There’s a major event every month, if not every week,” says Mayor Fazzone. “We partner with our Tourism Council, FOP, Athletic Association, County Historical Society and other community organizations by providing police, parking, and public works support, and they each sponsor these major events to obtain their own funding, support great causes, and give us continual entertainment. It’s amazing what happens when so many bright, passionate people get to share their interests in this way.”
The city also helps by providing office support seven days per week through its Recreation and Tourism Depts. to provide tickets or information, websites with calendars, maps and contact numbers, and even costumed tour guides on weekends and other times. “We are so proud of our city, which I believe has more history than any other city in America, and it’s frustrating that people don’t know about us,” says Mayor Fazzone. “But we’re changing that wherever possible.”
“We are reaching out to schools now because we can address fifth grade, eighth grade, and high school U. S. History New Jersey core curriculum content standards through our tours. We can guide 80 students or more, and they enjoy our local ice cream and food purveyors as part of their tour. Adult groups also enjoy them, and next year, they can play a round of historical golf, too,” says Mayor Fazzone.
What’s on the horizon? The Tourism Office recently purchased not one, but two rickshaws. “In 1900, James Birch’s Carriage Company in Burlington was the largest manufacturer of rickshaws in the world and a major supplier to Asia. We therefore think it is fitting that we present rickshaw tours. We bought them in September, and people love riding in them through our historical neighborhoods and along the river.” The city also is currently negotiating with a trolley company, and next year may see an 80-passenger hovercraft that can transport commuters as far south as Havre de Grace, Maryland.
“Life in Burlington is never dull,” says Mayor Fazzone. “Critics say we’re gambling, but we really win every time we try something. Even if it doesn’t go exactly the way we expect, we learn something that leads to an even better idea. My philosophy is: ‘Forget about the horse being blind; just load the wagon!’”
To learn more about the historical City of Burlington, visit www.TourBurlington.org or www.BurlingtonNJ.us or call 609-386-0200 (City Hall) or 609-386-4070 (Recreation).
This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 3, March 2009