The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 16, 2009

Christmas lights return to St. Peter

Downtown hasn't had lights since tornado

By Brian Ojanpa

ST PETER — It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in downtown St. Peter, thanks to the $25,000 largesse of a secret Santa.

City Administrator Todd Prafke said the anonymous “entity” stipulated only that the city use the money for downtown holiday decorations.

City officials took that to mean lighting, as in myriad energy-efficient LEDs fashioned into big snowflakes and positioned on light poles and on Minnesota Avenue’s new concrete center medians.

And the piece de resistance was being erected Wednesday in the form of twin 25-feet-wide by 16-feet-tall lighted arches.

“These lights are getting the focus back on downtown,” Public Works Director Lew Giesking said of a business district that’s been bereft of holiday lighting since the devastating 1998 tornado.

“The last concentrated effort at downtown lighting was before the tornado,” Giesking said. “The tornado damaged lighting on buildings, and it was never replaced.”

The new lights on St. Peter’s main artery also provide a timely tonic for businesses that were buffeted by summer-long detours due to road reconstruction.

“The opening of the street has been fantastic, and the lights just feel so nice,” River Rock Coffee owner Tamika Bertram said.

Knit & Sew World owner Shawn Dolan said the lights could create more holiday foot traffic for certain businesses along Minnesota Avenue, which accommodates about 25,000 vehicles daily.

“They make people kind of stop and notice you more. People will say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ and they might stop and take a look around.”

Bertram said the positive energy given off by the lights dovetails nicely with the 169 Committee that businesspeople formed last summer to deal with the effects of the highway project.

“Out of that came so many engaged merchants that we’ve decided to continue it as a separate Chamber of Commerce committee with the tentative name the Commerce and Quality of Life Committee,” Bertram said.

This spring, thousands of trees, shrubs and flowers will be planted along the avenue with a goal of eventually placing holiday lighting in the trees as well.

Prafke said the new downtown lighting, coupled with the city’s annual holiday lighting of nearby Minnesota Square Park, hearkens to a long-defunct merchants/Chamber holiday lighting event — “The Big Turn-On” — that may be due for a comeback.