Editorial: Albion Village Board should embrace Santa site on Main Street

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 March 2016 at 11:00 am
Santa waving to the crowd

Photos by Tom Rivers. A graduate of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, now based in Midland, Mich., waves when the Santa stopped by Albion on Tuesday. The Albion Betterment Committee would like to have a statue of Santa Claus on Main Street. The Santa could be waving, or be in a different pose.

(Editor’s Note: Tom Rivers is on the committee working on a memorial site in Albion for Charles W. Howard.)
ALBION – What makes the most sense for a vacant piece of land on Main Street in downtown Albion? How could the land best be used, contributing to a rebirth of the downtown business district?

There isn’t much open space available in such a dense business district. But there is an open spot, between the Presbyterian Church and a parking lot by El Gallo. This parcel has sat empty for five years since a former restaurant building was demolished.

An open grassy spot in Albion

The Albion Village Board is weighing whether to pave this open grassy spot or allow a community group to try to raise funds for a bronze statue of Santa Claus and a visitor center that could also have space for a business.

Village Board members five years eyed the land where the restaurant stood for more parking. At the time, CRFS was busting at the seams across the street. CRFS would move to a bigger building in Medina and settled about 2 ½ years ago in the former Chase building on Route 31 in Albion.

Since then, the parking crunch in Main Street has gone away. The lot by El Gallo seldom has more than a few cars.

But Village Board members and some merchants say that could change if the downtown becomes a hot spot, perhaps with a restaurant and other new businesses.

However, the Albion Betterment Committee sees the open spot by the parking lot as an ideal site for a statue of a Santa Claus and a mini-replica of the much-beloved Santa Claus School and Christmas Park that opened in Albion from 1937 to 1966.

That replica building could function as a year-round visitor center, selling coffee, ice cream, baked goods and merchandise. It should also have a public bathroom and displays about Albion’s Santa legacy. The Santa site would add some fun and pizzazz to the downtown. It would get more people out of their cars, exploring the business district.

Other businesses could piggyback on the site, selling Santa merchandise. Perhaps a Santa Deli or Charlie’s Hots would open. With the right leadership and investment, Albion could be home to a Santa Claus Museum and Hall of Fame. Santa could be a big part of the Albion identity.

(There is already a a Santa Claus Hall of Fame and Howard was inducted in the first class. The leader of the Hall of Fame, Phil Wenz, told me he would support Albion having a Santa Hall of Fame display. Click here for more information.)

Albion needs to reclaim its Santa heritage and it needs to start somewhere, and a prominent statue and visitor center on Main Street could help transform downtown.

Charles Howard started a Santa Claus School and ran it until his death on May 1, 1966. He remains a revered figure in the Santa Claus community, the network of people who portray the Jolly Ole’ Elf.

Charles Howard conference patch

Albion last year hosted the Charles W. Howard Legendary Santa Claus Conference.

More than 250 Santas, from all over the country and beyond, were in Albion last April for a convention. They made it clear they love Charles Howard and his contributions to the Santa “profession.”

Howard was influential in developing standards for how Santa should look, act and be. The Santas, when they were in Albion a year ago, noted the 50th anniversary of Howard’s death would be in 2016. They said they wanted to contribute to a memorial site in Albion.

The Betterment Committee has tried to find a suitable site to honor Howard. We first reached out to Hoag Library, but that didn’t seem like a good fit. The library really isn’t connected to Charles Howard and the local Santa story.

Putting the statue in the downtown would give that historic district a bigger lift anyway. Constructing a visitor center that might also function as perhaps the Santa Claus School Café also links the statue to a bigger site.

I don’t think more parking on Main Street will be downtown’s salvation. We need a project that will draw people to the downtown, and feed other businesses. Ideally, we would create a parking problem.

If that happens, there are plenty of parking spots on Platt and Liberty streets, a short walk from the Main Street buildings. These lots tend to lack signage. I don’t think people are aware they can park there.

Platt Street parking in Albion

This parking lot with 13 spaces is on Platt Street by the Presbyterian Church, right behind the vacant land the village is considering as a parking lot. The spaces by the Presbyterian Church seldom are used. This photo was taken at about 10:30 a.m. on Monday.

Platt Street parking spaces

There are also several parking spaces on Platt Street that don’t see much action.

Corner of Platt and State streets

There is a parking lot next to the Free Methodist Church at the corner of Platt and State streets. A dilapidated house next door could also be removed if there was a need for more parking.

Liberty Street parking

There are parking lots with many spaces on Liberty Street as well.

The Village Board should consider working out deals with the business owners or churches that own the land, allowing the spots to be open to the public. In exchange for public parking, maybe the village could plow the lots in the winter.

That would better utilize the spaces, especially at the churches where the lots are largely underutilized when it isn’t Sunday morning.

That would also allow the community to create the Santa site. The village would own the statue and visitor center. The village could seek bids from vendors to operate a café/bakery/store. That rent would generate some revenue for the village, and also draw a new merchant to the downtown.

The Betterment Committee wants an answer soon from the village because the Betterment Committee is pushing to go public with a fund-raising effort on May 1. That is the 50th anniversary of Charles Howard’s death.

The Village Board is scheduled to vote at 7 p.m. today about what to do with vacant land on Main Street. I’m hoping they will embrace the community’s Santa history, and make a bold statement that we are a community on the rise, showing optimism in the future and pride in our past.

A bigger parking lot won’t do much to change the perception of a struggling downtown. A Santa site would bring magic to Main Street, every day of the year.