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Albion board sees benefits of Santa site, but wants more public input

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 March 2016 at 12:00 am

Sets April 20 meeting to hear from community if village-owned land should be used for Santa site or parking

Charles Howard is pictured in 1965 in one of the last times he wore the Santa suit. Howard died at age 69 on May 1, 1966. The Albion Betterment Committee would like to see a bronze statue of Howard, perhaps in this pose with his hands on hips.

ALBION – The Albion Village Board said it supports the idea of a Santa Claus heritage site, but wants more information about the project and more input from the community whether village-owned land on Main Street should be used for a statue and a “Santa House.”

Board members would like to recognize Charles W. Howard, the creator of a Santa Claus School in 1937. The school was run in Albion until Howard’s death in 1966. It now is operated in Midland, Mich., and still bears Howard’s name.

Howard was an influential Santa who established standards for how Santa should dress and act. He was in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as Santa for nearly 20 years, one of the most high-profile assignments for a Santa.

The Albion Betterment Committee would like a bronze statue of Howard on Main Street on vacant land next to the Presbyterian Church. Adding a building that would resemble Howard’s Christmas Park and Santa Claus School would create an attraction on Main Street, said Gary Kent, one of the directors of the Betterment Committee.

“We could put the village on the map all over the place big time,” Kent told the Village Board during a meeting this evening.

The Betterment Committee sees a building at about 1,000 square feet as a year-round operation, selling Santa-themed merchandise and perhaps baked goods, coffee and other drinks. The village would ultimately own the site and could lease it out to a business.

Mayor Dean London supports the idea but would like more specifics of the proposal. London and board members say they worry about the downtown business district and would welcome an attraction that would boost foot traffic for other businesses.

Santa visits with children at the former Christmas Park in Albion. The Betterment Committee would like a building on Main Street, resembling a site from Christmas Park.

Vinny Navarra owns a downtown building with a liquor store, fitness center, and barber shop. He has additional space for tenants. He said the village-owned land should be used for public parking. That was the stated purpose when the village took down a deteriorating building five years ago, Navarra said.

The land next the church could be used for 14 parking spaces at a cost of about $15,000 to pave the space and have the same grade as a neighboring parking lot, said Todd Sargent, the Department of Public Works superintendent.

Although parking currently isn’t an issue, downtown can run out of parking fast, especially with plans for a new restaurant by Adam Johnson, Navarra said. He said the statue could go elsewhere on Main Street without a Santa House. The statue might be best at Waterman Park, a half block south of the canal, Navarra suggested.

Kent and the Betterment Committee want the new building so it could be made to look like the former Santa Claus School in Albion. The site would appeal to a vendor and could also function as a visitor center with a public bathroom for the downtown.

Village Trustee Stan Farone stated his support for the statue and “Santa House,” saying the look of the building is important for the project to be a draw for the entire downtown.

Trustee Eileen Banker also voiced support for the project, saying it would be a boost for the downtown.

Trustee Pete Sidari said it is a difficult decision. He wants to play up on the Santa theme for Albion, but he also thinks downtown merchants could be out of parking with more businesses. He also wondered what would come of the “Santa House” if no vendor comes forward. He doesn’t want the village saddled with an empty structure.

Maureen Bennett, a vendor with Uptown Browsery, said she would support the Santa statue and house. She said existing merchants are struggling to get people into their stores.

“We don’t need more parking,” she said. “We need more people coming into our shops.”

The board decided it wanted more feedback from the community. It set a 7 p.m. public hearing for April 20 with a vote from the board at 7 p.m. on April 27.