Downtown comes alive

There’s a sense of excitement in downtown Steubenville that had been missing from the community for many years.

We were reminded of that Tuesday evening as the city held its annual Light Up the Night event at Fort Steuben Park.

The centerpiece of the activities there has, for the last five years, been the life-size nutcrackers that line the walkways inside the park. Their roster has grown during that time from right around 100 to 183.

And, that’s too many for the area surrounding the park — they now stretch up Market Street and along both sides of Fourth Street from Adams to Washington streets.

Among those getting ready for this year’s ight-up event and the opening of the Nutcracker Village and Advent Market Tuesday afternoon was Jerry Barilla.

He continues to wear many hats — in addition to his duties as mayor, Barilla serves as president of Historic Fort Steuben.

“It’s a good event for the city,” Barilla said while he and Paul Zuros, who is replacing Judy Bratten as executive director at the fort, walked through the displays and helped to put the finishing touches on the venue in the minutes before the festivities officially got under way.

“There is a big family that’s doing all of the work,” Barilla said. “There are a lot of people involved in making this happen — a lot of good people, a lot of dedicated people — and they are not being paid.”

One way to help revitalize any area in any town is to have events that give people a reason to come to that area. The Nutcracker Village does that by attracting residents not just from our area, but from many parts of the United States during the six weeks or so that include the period of just before Thanksgiving to just after Christmas.

First Fridays on Fourth, monthly events that are coordinated by the Harmonium Project, do the same once a month from April through November. That series has been successful as well, with bigger and bigger crowds being attracted to each of the street fairs.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Patrick McLaughlin, a longtime volunteer at the fort and other community events said Tuesday while making the rounds of the area surrounding the city’s official Christmas tree, which is set up in what is the park’s fountain during the summer months.

“First Fridays are doing a great job of bringing people into town, and this is doing a great job as well,” McLaughlin said. “That’s what you’re looking for.”

He agreed that expanding the display to the downtown area was a good decision.

“I think it’s a great idea to put them along Fourth Street,” he said. “That helps to show support for the businesses there. It’s important to branch out into other parts of the city.”

Organizers have worked hard to keep the experience fresh. While the nutcrackers and advent market, which features food and gift vendors, remain the main draw, new events have been added each year. Last weekend featured the judging of the gingerbread house decorating contest.

Other events surrounding the village include blessing of advent wreaths and Nativities at 2 p.m. today; the children’s lantern parade at 6 p.m. Friday; the nutcracker drumline at 4 p.m. Dec. 8; and the Nutcracker Magic Christmas Parade beginning at noon on Dec. 14.

Plus, there are free hayrides on Friday and Saturday nights and free trolley rides on Saturday and Sundays, as well as tours of the Jefferson County Historical Museum and the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Next year, Barilla said they are working to get a temporary skating rink added to the activities.

“That would be a really cool thing,” he said.

Barilla added that special thanks need to be extended to the local media.

“We could have the best thing going, but if it weren’t for the Herald-Star and other local media getting the word out, we would not have anything. That really has sparked us.”

He added that it’s important that the events continue to attract visitors from outside of the Steubenville area.

“We need to really get the word out in the Pittsburgh area,” Barilla said. “It’s only a 30-minute or a 45-minute drive, and that would be a big plus for us.”

It’s amazing to see how the project has expanded since Barilla and local businessman Mark Nelson first came up with the idea for the Nutcracker Village. Nelson and his staff, including daughters Therese and Madeline, as well as Brody Stutzman, have been key to the project.

“It’s our fifth year, and that’s super exciting,” Nelson said Tuesday afternoon while helping put the finishing touches on the signs that are displayed throughout the village and downtown.

He agreed with Barilla and McLaughlin that the annual displays happen only because of the hard work of a lot of people. The response of everyone who visits the village makes it all worth it.

“We live in a great community,” Nelson said. “It’s great to see all of the joy that pours out this time of year.”

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)