Organizers of the Nutcracker Village face tough decisions

JUST VISITING — Sherry and Terry Stone of Elyria stopped by the Nutcracker Village and Advent Market on Sunday. The number of out-of-town visitors has been growing since the display opened four years ago. Now the organizers of the attraction say they are at the crossroads of where to take it during the next several years. -- Mark Law

STEUBENVILLE — The organizers of the Nutcracker Village and Advent Market are facing some tough decisions on its future — go big or stay small.

Mark Nelson of Nelson’s of Steubenville, the manufacturer of the nutcrackers, said there were 37 nutcrackers during the first year. The number has grown to 177 in its current fourth year.

Jerry Barilla, now mayor, wanted to put small nutcrackers in empty downtown storefronts. Nelson said he studied how to make larger nutcrackers. His brother, Mike, built a machine to manufacture the nutcrackers.

“We didn’t know how the public would react to the nutcrackers. Would they be scary? It proved to be a hit,” Nelson said.

Last year, a map was put in the visitors center at Old Fort Steuben and visitors marked that they came from all 50 states.

“We never expected to see the growth we have seen. We have reached another level with a lot of out-of-town guests. Their expectation level has grown and we need to grow the event to meet their expectation level. The pressure is on for the community to step up its game,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the organizers struck a chord with children. He said the nutcrackers are magical for children. The kids, in turn, show up with parents and grandparents in tow.

“It is something special and different,” he said.

The Nutcracker Village doesn’t have a budget for advertising, so organizers rely on social media to get the word out.

The Ohio tourism website has a picture of the nutcracker village on its home page for holiday destinations.

Around 4 p.m. on Saturday, the parking lots around Old Fort Steuben and on Third Street were packed with vehicles. A survey of the license plates showed vehicles from the Ohio counties of Jefferson, Lucas, Erie, Harrison, Columbiana, Mahoning, Belmont, Delaware, Monroe and Perry, in addition to plates from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia.

Bryan Largent of Canonsburg, Pa., brought his wife and two children to the attraction on Sunday. It was the family’s first visit. He said the children thought the nutcrackers were “pretty cool.”

“It is something different,” he said.

Sherry and Terry Stone of Elyria drove two and one-half hours to Steubenville on Sunday to visit nutcracker village.

Sherry said she is a self-admitted nutcracker nut. She has 32 smaller nutcrackers at their house.

“I’ll probably go home with more,” she said while browsing the gift shop at the visitor’s center.

“It is amazing,” she said of the nutcracker village. “I love it.”

Terry agreed, saying, “I think it is awesome. Well worth the drive.”

Asked if they will come back next year, Sherry said, “Oh yeah, we’ll come back.”

Terry said, “Next year we’ll make it a weekend and attend the parade.”

Judy Bratten, executive director of Historic Fort Steuben and the Visitors Center, said the nutcracker village attendance was down early in the season because of rain. But on good-weather days, thousands have come to visit, she said.

Schools have visited the nutcracker village as a field trip. Bratten said teachers have built educational programs around the visit.

City Manager James Mavromatis said the attraction has been a “home run” since it started. He said hotels and restaurants have been filled during the event.

“Visitors come in for several days,” he said.

Barilla said revenue from the city’s hotel and motel tax had its highest month ever last December.

Barilla said the key to the nutcracker village is the children.

“They come here and want to hug the nutcrackers. It is like the Disney World of Ohio. The kids bring their families in. It is a serious entity now. We need to address the long-term future of nutcracker village,” Barilla said.

Barilla said other attractions need to accompany the nutcracker village. He said there are small stores popping up along Fourth Street, including Drosselmeyer’s Nutcracker Shoppe, the Steubenville Popcorn Co., and the Renaissance Coffee Roasting Co. & Leonardo’s Coffeehouse, all owned and operated by the Nelson family.

A new addition this year is the miniature railroad display built by Larry Caniff at 248 N. Fourth St. The display features the steelmaking history of the area.

Barilla said one idea is to add holiday lighting along Fourth Street and improve signs directing visitors where to park.

“We need to be very family friendly,” Barilla said.

Trinity Health System is the presenting sponsor for the village. Other sponsors include the Herald-Star, Allen Oil — Quik Mart, Barium and Chemicals, Capital Health Care Net, Cattrell Cos. Inc., DeeJay’s BBQ Ribs and Grille, DeNoon Lumber,, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Husqvarna, M&M True Value Hardware, National Colloid, the Puglisese Charitable Trust, Tri-State Financial Services, Tri-State Printing and WTOV-TV.