Santa committee looking at other Main Street site after resistance over parking lot

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 April 2016 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – The Albion Betterment Committee is backing off plans to put a bronze statue of Santa Claus with a “Santa House” in a vacant spot next to the First Presbyterian Church after several merchants and past Village Board members expressed concerns that the land should be used for public parking. The Betterment Committee is looking at other sites, including Waterman Park, a spot on Main Street next to Cropsey and Cropsey.

ALBION – The Village Board was encouraged to support efforts for a bronze statue of Santa Claus in honor of Charles Howard, the Albion native who ran a Santa Claus School from 1937 until his death in 1966.

However, the Village Board was urged not to allow the Howard memorial to be erected on vacant land next to the First Presbyterian Church. The village took down a building that was considered unsafe five years ago with the goal of creating a parking lot. The spot hasn’t been turned into parking yet, but several merchants said they don’t want to see that potential go away.

Greg Schmitt of the Olde Coach Inn said he only has three parking spaces now for his business. He would like to add a sports bar, but not having access to the parking would hurt that effort.

Dean Theodorakos was mayor of Albion when the building was demolished. He spoke at the public hearing Wednesday about using the space for a Santa statue and memorial. Theodorakos favors keeping it for parking. He also urged the village to enforce existing two-hour parking in the downtown. He also shared his concern that a Santa House, which could sell merchandise and refreshments, be self-supporting and not be a drain on village finances.

The Albion Betterment Committee shared concerns about the aesthetics of a big parking lot on Main Street. Theodorakos said there were plans for green space if the village moves forward with the bigger lot.

(Editor’s note: I’m on the Santa committee and spoke during the public hearing. I suggested the village put historic-looking lights in the median of the parking lot and some small trees to be a buffer looking at the former Sneezy’s bowling alley and to help with the aesthetics of the space.)

As a committee member I favor the Waterman Park site on Main Street, a half block south of the canal. The site is owned by the village and much of the landscaping is done. The Memorial Art Company in Buffalo visited Albion twice about three years ago to look at spots for a potential quarryman memorial site.

That company, which has created and installed several bronze statues, thought Waterman was the best spot. It’s high-profile on Main Street with two intersecting sidewalks. The company didn’t like the land by the Presbyterian Church because a bronze would look so small next to a 175-foot-high building.

Waterman could be renamed the Charles W. Howard Memorial Park. Murals could added with a Santa theme and Christmas trees planted to create a Christmas feel (my opinion).

The Village Board would need to vote on making public space available for any Santa projects.

Maureen Bennett is a vendor across from Waterman in the Uptown Browsery. She thought the location with a statue would give a lift to several of the businesses that would be close by to the statue.

Community members have pitched other sites for a Santa statue and House, including this spot at the corner of Ingersoll and West Bank streets. I think it’s too far from Main Street and wouldn’t be a springboard for other businesses to piggyback off of. If the statue is on Main Street, I could see businesses opening with a Santa theme, or selling Santa-related merchandise.

The site at the former Swan Library also has been suggested for the Santa statue. The property is now privately owned by Chad Fabry. He wants to remove the large tree. Some people, including Village Trustee Pete Sidari, have suggested the statue could go there. (I don’t think the statue would “connect” well with the site. It would be harder to create a Santa theme here and I think the statue would look out of place.)

Ken McPherson is a graduate of the Charles Howard Santa Claus School, which is now in Midland, Mich. McPherson said Howard is well regarded among the Santa community. More than 200 attended a Santa conference in Albion a year ago.

The Betterment Committee would like a Santa statue to be made of bronze and placed in a prominent part of town, serving as a icon, much like the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, which is featured in the film “A Perfect Storm” and remains a big part of the identity of this Massachusetts community.

McPherson is also on the local Santa committee. He said a statue would be a nice way to recognize Howard’s impact in the community and with the people who portray Santa around the world. McPherson would like to see a display of memorabilia of Christmas Park that tells the story of that site created by Howard on Phipps Road. However, McPherson said he wants a project that has strong support in the community.

Albion residents Lori Laine and Gary Condoluci also voiced support for the bigger project of a statue and “Santa House.” Laine said that combination would be a bigger draw to the downtown. However, she said she would support the statue at first, with the possibility of developing a Santa House later on.

Adam Johnson is working to develop a restaurant in the downtown. He submitted a letter that was read at the public hearing. Johnson didn’t want to give up parking spaces for a Santa House that he said doesn’t have a viable long-term plan. Johnson said he favors the statue at Waterman Park.

Resident Mark Parker also shared concerns about the viability of running a Santa House and the burden on the village with ongoing maintenance.

Another issue raised on Wednesday was whether Howard’s family would support a memorial project. Howard’s grandchildren attended the Santa convention a year ago and gave verbal support for the project. Village Board members said they want to see that in writing. McPherson said he knows Howard’s granddaughter, Jane Holland of Williamsville, and would see if she would state her support for the project.

Charles Howard is pictured in 1965 in one of the last times he wore the Santa suit. The 50th anniversary of his death is on May 1.

Condoluci said he remembers when he was a kid and visited Christmas Park and Howard.

Condoluci urged the Village Board to “take a leap of faith” and allow a Howard memorial to be created on village-owned land on Main Street.

“I remember Charlie Howard,” Condolucci said. He was a big deal. He is a very proud and vibrant part of Albion history.”