Bloomberg News

Santa Gets Scarcer as Cash-Strapped U.S. Cities Cancel Parades

October 28, 2011

Oct. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Santa Claus is sad, though he understands why Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is canceling its holiday parade this year.

Frank Linn Sr., who played the city’s St. Nicholas 15 times, is also a commissioner for nearby Lower Swatara Township. Revenue there has flagged, and he recognizes that the bankrupt city next door must use its money for more pressing needs than sponsoring Cookie Monster balloons, sending high-school bands a- piping and a-drumming -- and paying for his annual arrival in a horse-drawn carriage.

“I would cancel the parade, too,” Linn, 70, said in a telephone interview. “I’m for the parade 100 percent, but I see the situation clearly.”

Harrisburg is joining local governments from Palmyra, New Jersey, to Fresno, California, that are cutting or curtailing holiday parades, decorations and festivities, or shifting costs to civic groups and businesses.

U.S. cities project that combined revenue will fall by 2.3 percent by year-end, the fifth-straight annual decline, the Washington-based National League of Cities said in a Sept. 27 report. Only 35 percent of counties passed balanced 2012 budgets this fiscal year with no anticipated shortfalls, according to survey released Oct. 20 by the National Association of Counties in Washington.

Straitened Circumstances

Governments that didn’t diminish holiday events or find new funds to support them since the 18-month recession started in 2007 are looking this year, said Michael Darcy, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

“It’s not an unusual story anymore, unfortunately,” Darcy said in a telephone interview from Trenton.

Harrisburg, in bankruptcy and facing a state takeover, has canceled its Nov. 19 parade because the city can’t spare any tax money and sponsors haven’t committed the $45,000 cost, said Brenda Alton, director of the parks and recreation department.

“Why are they going to take away the little things people have?” Erin Keating, a 34-year-old waitress at Arepa City in downtown Harrisburg, said in an interview. “It’s getting bad out there. No one has any money.”

The decisions are hard, said John Gural, Palmyra’s administrator and a former mayor. The borough canceled its Halloween parade, which cost as much as $8,000 plus indirect expenses such as police overtime, because of declining revenue in every department and flat state funding, he said.

Off the Streets

Gural, 51, said the parade, which featured bands, floats and kids in costumes, was started to keep children from soaping windows and other mischief. It “helped keep me focused, too, sometimes as a kid,” he said.

“In the overall scheme, having or not having a Halloween parade might not seem like it’s important,” Gural said. “But when your community has come to rely on it for literally decades, it’s a big deal and it has an impact.”

The borough of 7,400 is trying to soften the blow by holding a party for children at a community center on Oct. 30, he said.

Communities have to think creatively and cut costs or shift them to participants, Ken Small, a manager for the Florida League of Cities, said from Tallahassee.

One Lone Tree

In Austin, Texas, the city was paying almost $1 million to stage a mile-long Trail of Lights around the holidays, said Jason Maurer, events manager for the city’s parks and recreation department. After holding a scaled-back version in 2009 for $70,000 and having a single lighted Christmas tree last year, the city sought bids from a company to operate this year’s event with a $5 admission fee for adults, he said.

“We’re not going to have a house to hold the event in if we don’t take care of the house first,” Maurer said in a telephone interview.

Officials in Fresno canceled the 81-year-old holiday parade this year and are working with public and private agencies to hold a tree-lighting festival instead, Heather Heinks, a spokeswoman, said by e-mail. Volunteers are putting up the city tree, she said.

Not only is Lincoln, Nebraska, not holding its Star City Holiday Parade for a second straight year, it’s selling off some of its floats to the town of Seward, said Staci Hass of GoLincolnGo, a volunteer group that helps produce city events.

Holiday austerity doesn’t have to mean that traditions must disappear entirely, said Alton, the Harrisburg parks director.

“Where things may not be like they used to be, it doesn’t mean that it still can’t be, and maybe even be a little better,” she said.

Linn, the longtime St. Nick, takes a pragmatic view.

“Kids can always visit Santa at the mall,” he said. “Where Santa Claus can just wave to you during the parade, actually at the mall, you can sit in his lap and talk to him.”

--With assistance from Romy Varghese in Philadelphia and Andy Meek in Memphis. Editors: Stephen Merelman, Mark Schoifet

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus, Ohio, at mniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net


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