Heading into this pandemic winter, the city of Stillwater hopes to keep people coming downtown for outdoors, COVID-safe activities, if at all possible. It’s a tall order: How do you draw people into town without creating crowds?
For the past few weeks, a group of about 30 small business owners and city officials have been brainstorming ways to keep downtown functioning.
Mayor Ted Kozlowski said the idea to dress the city up for the holidays in a big way was always a “let’s do it next year” sort of thing. But inspiration and perhaps a bit of cabin fever amid quarantine struck hard this year, and a slate of activities have come together.
Here’s what’s on deck so far:
• Lighting the historic Lift Bridge. After getting Minnesota Department of Transportation approval, the city has been installing lights on the south-facing side of the bridge. The lights — a holidays first for the 1931 structure — could be ready by Saturday, Kozlowski said. It’s been a big year for the bridge already, with it reopening June 1 to pedestrian and cycling traffic after nearly three years of renovations.
The lights will extend into downtown and up and down Main Street, touching about 90 buildings in all, Kozlowski said. The Chestnut Street Plaza will also be lit, thanks to funds from Cub Foods and Hotel Crosby.
• A downtown ice rink: A 50-by-120-foot rink will open in the parking lot between the St. Croix River and the Freight House.
• The city installed a giant Christmas tree on park space near the river, as it has in past years. The lighting ceremony is usually a public event, but city officials want to keep it low-key this year and are not advertising the time or date of the first lighting. (And the city won’t hold its annual holiday parade this year, Kozlowski said.)
• The Zephyr Theatre will create an ice palace and maze on the north end of downtown, sponsored by the Stillwater Commons, an office and retail space.
• On weekends in December, carolers and elves will wander downtown, and free carriage rides will be available.
• On the last weekend in January, the city will host “Fire and Ice,” with hot air balloons launched or on display downtown. A 10-foot-tall lumberjack ice sculpture should be unveiled that weekend as well, with an ice cream social on Saturday of that weekend.
• A modified fat-tire bike race will take place Jan. 23 and 24, with no group starts or finishes planned. Each rider will go out on the roughly 10-mile route at their own start time in order to avoid crowds, using a smartphone app to record their time. Some portions of the route will have races built in, with prizes for the fastest person to get up the hill from the historic Lift Bridge into Wisconsin, for example.
• The first Stillwater pond hockey tournament. Most games will be played at rinks on Lily Lake, with the finals on the rink planned for downtown behind the Freight House. Crowds may not be allowed to spectate if COVID numbers are trending up; hockey officials will make the call two weeks before the tournament is scheduled to begin.
Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, said the series of winter events came from a “powerful collaborative effort” from downtown business owners.
“A majority of them are locally owned, so it’s really helping our own neighbors,” she said.
Sara Jespersen, owner of the Lumberjack ax-throwing bar, said people tried to think of something for every weekend of the winter and limited themselves to things that would work “no matter what was going on in the world.”
“Everything we do this year is a launching pad for future years to come,” she said. “We really want to make Stillwater a destination in the winter months as much as the summer months.”