Festive city

The city of Cambridge has become a popular Christmastime destination in recent years, and some folks in Marietta want the Pioneer City to follow in its footsteps.

“It’s huge, and there’s no reason we can’t … develop a program like that,” said Ken Kupsche, owner of the Cook’s Shop on Front Street in Marietta.

“Cambridge started with one guy with an idea,” he said. “It was a volunteer effort. It wasn’t the city that did it. But it really benefits the city.”

Cambridge’s Dickens Victorian Village features period-clothing-clad mannequins built and painted by local volunteers in nearly 90 Christmas-themed scenes on street corners and in windows along a stretch of Wheeling Avenue. The 132-year-old Guernsey County Courthouse is the scene of a holiday music light show each evening, and afternoon teas are held on Saturdays at the Yellow Rose Tea Room. Special events such as parades and a Victorian Street Festival are held on weekends.

Organizers estimate the eight-year-old event draws about 20,000 visitors a year, 2,000 to 3,000 of whom arrive on tour buses, said Jonett Haberfield, project co-chairwoman for Dickens Victorian Village.

“We have 49 bus tours scheduled in the next 10 weeks,” she said. “Some tourist destinations don’t have 49 bus tours in a whole year.”

As Kupsche said, the idea started with local businessman and artist Bob Ley. What has helped make the effort successful, Haberfield said, is the way Ley included others to make it a reality and the continuing support of the community.

“Every year we invite the community to come sit down with us and talk about what worked and what didn’t,” Haberfield said.

That sense of participation and ownership helps maintain a volunteer force about 300 strong.

“We do work on it year-round,” Haberfield said. “You’ve got to have dedicated volunteers that are willing to spend their summers refreshing.”

The project received a $2,000 start-up grant from the city, but funding primarily comes from donations and sponsorship of particular scenes. Souvenirs are also sold.

Haberfield estimated about $20,000 to $25,000 is spent each year on the village and the courthouse light show, numbers that don’t include the numerous hours of volunteer labor. That investment pays off in revenue for local hotels, restaurants and shops and additional tax revenue, she said.

As visitors from three different tour buses in town to see the displays shopped the Country Bits and Pieces antique and craft mall on Wheeling Avenue Tuesday, owner Dee Kovacik said the addition of the Victorian Village has been a boon to local merchants, even during the recent economic downturn.

“The Dickens has really helped us through that,” she said. “We were still having good Christmases and good winters when other stores were suffering.”

Kovacik, a member of the board for Main Street Cambridge and the local chamber of commerce, said people have come to see the city’s Christmas displays from as far away as Alaska and Canada.

They’ve also drawn people from much closer, including Marietta resident Nancy Jenkins.

“If we get company during the holidays, we head straight up to Cambridge, and we shop around up there,” said Jenkins, 63.

Jenkins said Marietta could do much better with its Christmas decorations and has cited Cambridge as an example.

“They’re boring,” she said of recent local displays, including candy canes mounted on lamp posts. “There’s nothing to attract people.”

Kupsche recently suggested expanding Marietta’s holiday displays to a Main Street Marietta committee, and Jean G. Farmer, the organization’s director, said planning will begin in January.

“We’re talking about how Christmas can actually be a tourism thing,” Farmer said. “We’re) trying to figure out how to make Marietta the place to come when it comes to Christmas.”

Kupsche said he’d like to see the downtown area build on the vintage displays placed in recent years in the windows of the Peoples Bank building along Second Street. Farmer said other options could include asking downtown landlords to light their buildings as was done in years past and perhaps wrapping trees near the Armory and in Muskingum Park with lights.

But that takes money.

“We don’t have the funding for that,” Farmer said. “If you create the vision, maybe someone will come along and say, ‘I can do that.'”

As has been Cambridge’s experience, Kupsche said raising Marietta’s holiday profile isn’t something only a small group of supporters can accomplish.

“We have to get the town behind this too,” he said.

Farmer said Main Street Marietta will form a committee to work on the idea starting in January, with an eye toward beefing up holiday displays by Christmas 2014. Kupsche expects the overall transformation to take some time, being built up over a period of years.

“The eventual goal would be that downtown Marietta would be a … destination that would attract people from distance,” he said.

And Kupsche would like to see the folks who criticize the current decorations join in the effort.

“I would certainly invite every one of those people who aren’t satisfied with the way Marietta looks to get involved with Main Street Marietta,” he said, noting that involvement can come in the form of money or volunteering.