Downtown aglow as lights, music provide outdoor experience in place of Holiday in the City this year

If you’ve ventured to Downtown Springfield any evening this week, you’ve seen it brightly lit through City Hall Plaza and North on Fountain Avenue, and you’ve heard the jolly sounds of holiday music through the streets.

When the Holiday in the City Committee realized in July that it was unlikely an event this size would be able to happen this year because of COVID-19, they decided it was best to move forward with cancelling the annual welcome-to-the-holidays event, says Chris Schutte, director of destination marketing for The Chamber of Greater Springfield.

Then, the committee immediately shifted gears to figure out what they could still plan that would be safe, healthy, and inviting to the core downtown area.

“We’ve always had a desire to try to extend (Holiday in the City),” Schutte says. “Not that we don’t like the live event with the carousel and the fireworks and the live entertainers and Santa and everything else – it’s great. But, it’s three hours and then it’s done.

“So, we’ve always talked about, ‘How can we get more impact? How can we get more impact for the businesses downtown, for the restaurants downtown? How can we make it more of a destination?’ So really what the pandemic did was give us an opportunity to explore more options.”

With the brainstorming power of the committee, many local businesses and organizations still committed to providing funding like in past years, and manpower provided by the City of Springfield, the committee was able to purchase and hang new commercial-grade lighting and install speakers to play Christmas music outside downtown, Schutte says.

The “winter wonderland” includes hundreds of thousands of lights that give a welcoming glow to the area, and already have been attracting to people stopping by for a photo op. 

The lights visitors will see this year are part of Phase 1 of a three-phase lighting project the committee plans to expand on in the next couple years, Schutte says. Phase 1 included the esplanade in front of COhatch and some lighting on City Hall Plaza. The lights were lit Nov. 29, and the lights and music will be on every night from 5 to 9 p.m. through New Year.

“As we started to form this, we thought how this may be a way to draw people in to downtown over a six-week period that could be a meaningful way to benefit the businesses downtown,” he says.

Another part of this year’s planning included weekly "Shop local. Dine local. Support local." events that were proposed to have snow machines, outdoor movies, strolling characters, and more. But, Schutte says the committee has continued to check with the Clark County Combine Health District throughout the planning process, and with the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and directions from Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine to avoid gathering, these plans also weren’t feasible for 2020.

So, again changing directions, the committee and the chamber instead are promoting visitors coming downtown to experience the lights and staying to pickup carryout from one of the many local restaurants.

In the evenings, parts of parking along Fountain Avenue will even be marked off for carryout parking to make it easier for people to grab to-go meals while they’re downtown.

“One of the things so many people have said to me is, ‘Wow, the lights are such a literal and figurative bright spot,’” Schutte says. “It is bringing people downtown, they’re smiling, they’re laughing, they’re taking pictures, and it is having the desired effect of people picking up food … and hopefully they’ll stop in shops like Champion City (Guide & Supply) and pick up gifts.”

Schutte says part of the benefit of lighting downtown and keeping it lit over a six-week period is that the lights are outside and spread out, allowing people to visit, wonder, and enjoy their time while still having plenty of physical distance.

Some nights there will be additions to the lighting display, including projections on the State Theatre, so Schutte emphasized that people could come multiple times throughout the next few weeks and have a different experience each time.

He added that the weather could play a big part in changing up that experience also.

“It was absolutely completely different the first time I went down there … then we went down during the snowstorm, and it was completely different – it was like a winter wonderland,” he says. “And then they’ll be days it’s going to be warmer when you’re going to want to grab a DORA (designated outdoor refreshment area) cup and walk around with a drink and take pictures and spend more time outside.”

The committee is excited and hopeful to be able to return to including many of the Holiday in the City favorites – like SantaLand and live entertainment – in the future. But, they’re also looking forward to continuing the phases of this new holiday light project to attract people downtown throughout the holiday season for years to come.

“We just tried to make decisions that we thought were in the best interest of the community, and creating this has had a positive effect of something to look forward to,” Schutte says. “We’re trying to do anything we think will benefit the whole and anything we can do to lift businesses up.”

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.