Orchestrating December is difficult

Published 1:32 pm Wednesday, January 6, 2016

By Diana McFarland

News editor

Smithfield is becoming a popular tourist destination and that was especially evident the weekend of Dec. 11-12 when several events coincided to create a traffic and parking “nightmare,” as described by one organizer.

As a result, the Smithfield town officials are considering a proposal to move the Christmas market to a Saturday from 2 – 9 p.m., according to Isle of Wight Tourism Director Judy Winslow.  At the same time, the Woman’s Club of Smithfield is considering changing the day of its annual Christmas tree lighting and the Isle of Wight Tourism Department is looking to change the location of the Christmas parade judging stand.

The weekend of Christmas events began when Main Street was closed at 2 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 11 to allow vendors time to set up and health inspections to be completed before the Christmas Market officially began at 5 p.m. The Christmas Tree lighting began at 5:30 p.m. at The Smithfield Center. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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Also on tap for that evening was the pre-opening of the new Smithfield Winery, the opening of the play “Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” at the Smithfield Little Theatre and a toy train exhibit at the Isle of Wight Chamber of Commerce — all located within blocks of each other.

“Traffic was a nightmare,” said Woman’s Club Christmas tree lighting organizer Arleen Whelan, a sentiment that was echoed by scores of others in town. Whelan said changing the day would be considered at an upcoming club committee meeting.

It was so crowded that cars were backed up to Benn’s Church, said Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams.

Williams said he had several complaints from residents unable to get home from work. At the same time, two downtown restaurants reported record sales that night, he added.

The Smithfield Center Director Amy Musick told the Town Council that 15,000 – 20,000 people were in town that evening.

In years past, the Smithfield Woman’s Club held its annual Christmas tree lighting the Sunday after Thanksgiving — which is the start of Advent in Europe, Whelan said.

In recent years, the Woman’s Club was asked to move it to Friday night to coincide with the Christmas Market, Whelan said.

Musick said parking was a challenge that night, and for that reason, is working with the Woman’s Club of Smithfield to perhaps move the tree lighting to the first Saturday in December, followed by the Christmas parade on the second Saturday. Musick is also discussing moving the Christmas tree lighting to Main Street in front of The Smithfield Time building, and using an artificial tree instead of a live tree.

Moving the Christmas tree lighting the same weekend as Christmas in Smithfield would be a way for the events to complement each other, she said.

Christmas in Smithfield was held the first weekend of December and included homes tours and an antique show and sale. 

Winslow said the Christmas Market is being moved to Saturday to cut down on conflicts with commuters, and the time length will be spread out to cut down on congestion during the market on Main Street. The plan will eventually go before the Smithfield Town Council for approval.

Main Street business owners had mixed reviews of the evening of the Christmas Market and other events.

Carolyn Burke, who owns the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery and Cafe, said she only learned of the early street closure as a “rumor” that she had to check out, causing a hardship for employees, as well as customers coming downtown to pick up orders.

Downtown business owners should be consulted, she said.

“We create jobs, we create revenue. With the taxes we pay, we deserve to be consulted before they make these decisions,” Burke said.

Burke disagrees with moving the Christmas Market to a Saturday daytime event as it would cause the same problems for customers and employees.

“It started out as a wonderful thing at night and they should leave it like it is,” she said of the market that marked its third year in December. 

Judy Begland, owner of Wharf Hill Antiques and Mary Elizabeth, said she would rather the market stay at night as it attracts people at a time they normally wouldn’t come downtown. Begland said Saturday is her biggest sales day and closing the street would cause difficulties for her customers.

Jim Abicht, who owns the Christmas Store, doesn’t care what day the market is on because it a win-win for his business. However, afternoon shopping may not have the same “magic” as shopping at night, he added.

Smithfield Flags owner Bill Blevin agreed that night shopping adds special “ambiance.” Either way, he’s on board with the Christmas market as his business was brisk that evening.

Laura and Lucy’s owner Bob Redlin said adding daytime hours to the Christmas market would probably benefit vendors since daylight is a better venue for viewing merchandise. But a Saturday market might not draw the same crowds, he said.

Lisa Morgan owns Signature Styles — a non-tourism related business on Main Street. Morgan said she’s neutral about the street closing since she’s open only two Saturdays a month.

“Whatever they decide I have to go along with it.”

During a recent Town Council committee meeting, Councilman Milton Cook said he’s heard from several businesses that they don’t like the idea of a Saturday market.

Perhaps the town needs to get their input, he said.

“We need to keep that in mind.”

If the Christmas market were moved to a Saturday, the Christmas parade would be on another Saturday, Ketcham said.

One idea being considered for traffic control during the Christmas market is setting up a shuttle from Smithfield High School.

The trouble is letting people know the shuttle is at Smithfield High School, Williams said, adding that a shuttle was once set up at Smithfield Packing, but hardly anyone used it.

“They’re good problems, but we need to wade through them,” Williams said of the snags encountered as the town gains popularity for visitors.

Abicht agrees.

“Any time you put thousands of people on the street, I’m going to find a way to make it work,” he said.

Downtown was also packed Saturday morning, Dec. 12, as more than 550 people attended the Kiwanis annual Breakfast with Santa and untold numbers of people went to the Christmas Parade — another event up for review.

Organizers are looking at relocating the parade judging station to Grace Street — closer to the end of the parade — to keep it moving, as well as setting up a timer to limit the length of performances, according to Terri Rhiner with Isle of Wight Department of Tourism.

This year, the parade lasted an hour and a half and had a few lengthy performance glitches.

Smithfield is scheduled to have another daylong market event in March — the Vintage Market.

According to a special events application, the 100 block of Main Street will be closed from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 7,000 people are expected to attend.

The list of events requiring street closures or usage in the historic district is growing. This year, they include the Chilly BOB road race on Jan. 16; the Mardi Gras Run4Beads on Feb. 6; Smithfield Sprint Triathlon on April 2; the Smithfield Challenge bicycle ride on May 8; the Bike MS event June 4-5; Olden Days on June 25; Town and Country Day on Oct. 8 and the Christmas Parade on Saturday, Dec. 10.

Williams said it is crucial that residents be alerted to those events and street closures ahead of time.

“That’s very, very important,” he said. {/mprestriction}