Families came from all over Lenexa — once upon a time — to stand in the streets of the old downtown on the Monday after Thanksgiving. School choirs sang on the portable stage while brothers and sisters roasted marshmallows around fire barrels. At the appointed time, Santa arrive, sometimes by fire truck and once or twice in a horse-drawn wagon. Then the lights that outlined the facades of the businesses came on and people cheered. But no more.
For the first time in around 20 years, there will be no countdown. The outlines of the shops in the one-block district will be dark and the street will remain quiet — the children’s performances having long ago moved indoors to the Lenexa Community Center.
The change has some Old Town merchants worried about the city’s commitment to Lenexa’s downtown.
But Lenexa Parks and Recreation Director Gary Ristow said the city’s downscaling of the lighting ceremony — now called the Lenexa Holiday Celebration — came after a routine review of festivals and special events. The city had been providing the manpower to string the lights on the buildings each year, but became concerned about its liability should there be any damages to the buildings, which are privately owned.
The city will continue to light the community center and its other buildings across the railroad tracks from the old town. And there will also be wreaths on the light poles and lights in the trees along Santa Fe Trail Drive.
“A lot of things drove the decision,” said Lenexa Mayor Mike Boehm.
Sending city crews to put the lights up amounted to spending city money for decorations on private property —something that isn’t done at any other shopping area, he said.
Officials still expect a crowd to fill up the community center gym, where children have been singing and dancing and drinking cider for the past four years, Ristow said. That event, which features Santa and a store of low-cost holiday gifts, will be at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 30.
The exact beginning of the lighting tradition is hard to pin down, but longtime Old Towners say it’s been happening since at least the early 1990s. In its heyday, the event drew crowds to the parking area that separates the Old Town shops from Santa Fe.
The Historic Old Town Lenexa Association of merchants bought the lights and paid the city to put them up, Penney said. The addition of the performers and Santa quickly made it a popular event, he said, although the city didn’t keep track of attendance.
Things began to change after a particularly cold year more than four years ago, when the city decided to move the singing and dancing indoors. This was due to concerns about children — some of whom were in light dance leotards —having to spend an evening outdoors in the cold, Boehm said.
The Community Center crowd still went outdoors after the show to view the lighting, but a lot of the excitement was lost, Boehm said.
In the meantime, downtown Lenexa fell on hard times. The merchants group disbanded in 2005, Penney said. And then the recession. This year, just under half of the 18 storefronts in the blocklong area have no occupants. The vacancies didn’t play a role in the city’s decision, Ristow said.
The decision has made some long-time merchants wistful. “It was a nice community thing,” said Carol Hooper, owner of the Heartland Bead Market, formerly in Old Town. “It think it’s too bad. But it’s nice they’re still having the choirs.”
Heidi Semaan, owner of Alterations by Heidi, also will miss the event. Although her store was never open during the festivities, she said, the activity was good for business because it brought more people into the area who would note her store’s existence. “It’s a good, cheerful thing to do,” she said.
The decision to move the ceremony indoors and another one to disband a 4th of July street fair and fireworks years ago still stings some Old Towners, who note the resources Lenexa has put into the struggling City Center development at Interstate 435 and 87th Street.
“For a long time the city’s objective has been to lessen the community spirit Old Town brings,” said Marcia Prentiss, who owned the now defunct Pie Lady coffee shop. “They’re more interested in the new City Center — which is never going to be finished.”
“I really feel the city would like to forget Old Town is there,” Prentiss said.
But officials point out that the 4th of July parade and Freedom Run still take place in Old Town. And the city has recently added a fireworks show to the October Chili Challenge.
Lenexans should be realistic, Ristow said. “Just because you have an event doesn’t mean it will go on forever.”
Mandy Stuke and Andy Huckaba, council members who represent Old Town, say the city remains committed to its Old Town. They support the lighting ceremony decision.
“I think the solution of giving the lights to the people who run the shops and allow them to run it is probably the right way to do it,” Huckaba said.
“I know how it looks, but it is not intended to be that way,” Stuke said. The indoor arrangement is still fun and popular with families, she said. “I understand the way it used to be, but sometimes you have to try different things.”