Since the Polar Express excursion train pulled out of Stillwater after Christmas 2016, the city has struggled to find the right event to bring holiday excitement and visitors to town.
After trying several different things in the past two years, the City of Stillwater has a new concept for the 2019 holiday season: Holiday pop-up shops.
A rotating selection of vendors, including restaurants will set up shop for four weeks starting Nov. 29 in all-weather igloo-style tents. There would also be a Christmas tree lot to give families the experience of picking out their own trees without going to a big box store.
The idea for the event, which will be called Merry Main Street, was presented to the City Council Monday by Shannon Williams, the owner of the downtown Stillwater boutique Griege Goods and City Councilor Alane Zannotti.
Zannotti said she was taking her councilor hat off while presenting the project. She and Williams are volunteering to coordinate the pop-up shops, which they see as a city-owned and controlled event.
The remaining City Councilors expressed enthusiasm for their vision of an event that will feature partnerships with downtown merchants, the Prairie Arts Center, the Block 34 Trust and the Stillwater Community Center. They hope it will bridge the invisible barrier that Husband Street seems to create between Main Street and Block 34 and tie into Stillwater’s cultural district, which extends south along Duck Street. It has been difficult to get visitors to Block 34 to make the short walk to other parts of downtown during previous events.
Williams and Zannotti propose visually connecting Main Street and Block 34 with a mobile mural display and carriage rides through downtown. Musical entertainment and a Santa village at Christine Salmon Plaza, 9th Avenue and Main St., wandering carolers and special holiday window displays in the stores on Main Street would give visitors a reason to explore.
“We wanted to encompass all entities that are part of the downtown Stillwater area,” Zannotti said.
The City Council agreed to allocate up to $125,000, including $78,000 in one-time expenses, for the project. It will cost $70,000 to buy four 20-foot igloos and one 30-foot igloo.
The remainder covers the cost of port-a-potties, site prep and gravel for the lot, doors that lock and wooden floors for the igloos, security and a contingency fund of $18,500.
The City will pay for the project with $65,000 from a contingency fund that is available to use at the City Council’s discretion and $63,000 left in the City’s Arts and Humanities fund from previous events.
Zannotti and Williams anticipate bringing in at least $18,500 from sponsorships and from fees paid by pop-up market vendors and merchants who want to be included on a Merry Main Street map and event calendar. They say other sponsorships are possible and will be defined later.
They foresee it eventually becoming a self-sustaining event.
Visit Stillwater made an effort to fill the gap left by the Polar Express when it sponsored an outdoor ice skating rink in 2017. The rink delivered visitors but struggled with weather that didn’t cooperate.
The Winter Wonderland event with food trucks, Santa’s village and reindeer that was built around the ice rink ultimately cleared an estimated $5,000 but city leaders said they didn’t consider that enough return on investment to justify spending $80,000, in addition to the in-kind electrical work and services it had already provided, to bring the ice rink back.
In 2018, the city made do with a collection of lighted artificial trees arranged on Block 34 to make the vacant tract of land look more festive. It served as the loading spot for carriage rides through downtown and did attract some photo takers. But the event that created enthusiasm last year was a tree lighting ceremony with live music that downtown merchants sponsored at Christine Salmon Plaza, 9th Avenue and Main Street. Unfortunately, it was a one-night event.
Councilor Amy Dzialowski said she is very excited about the Merry Main Street project, which is similar to an event held in the Midtown area of Oklahoma City.
“I think it activates that space in a unique, special way,” she said. “And it generates sales tax.”
Mayor Will Joyce said he liked the project but knew some residents will wonder why the money was being spent on that instead of fixing potholes.
Vice-mayor Pat Darlington reminded him that he always tells people the city has to generate revenue in order to improve infrastructure.
She said she was going to quote something she has heard him say on Twitter: “If we don’t invest in our city, other people will not.”