Lawrence’s Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade in jeopardy of shutting down after this year; organizers say they are stepping down
photo by: Mike Yoder
One of Lawrence’s most beloved holiday traditions may be ending. Organizers of Lawrence’s Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade — the horse-drawn spectacle in downtown — say they plan on quitting after this year’s event.
That means someone else will have to take the reins, or else this year’s event — slated for the first Saturday in December — will be the last. If so, it would mark the end of a 27-year tradition that brings thousands to Lawrence to watch the parade, which is unique because it only allows entries that are pulled by horses.
“We need some younger people,” said Patty Kennedy, who along with her husband, Marty, and a group of volunteers, organizes the parade. “We know the city and the people love the parade, but we need younger people, and we haven’t had any luck in attracting anybody.”
Marty, a former Lawrence mayor, said that the seven businesses and organizations that make up the limited liability company that operates the parade, all agreed that this would be the last year for the parade unless new organizers came on board. They agreed that it would be better to end the parade than to let it decline in quality.
“We don’t want it to flop,” Marty said.
But if somebody does want to take on the responsibility of organizing the parade, the Kennedys and other volunteers are happy to pass on their knowledge.
“We have it down to a fine science,” Marty said. “Well, mostly fine.”
Any new organizer, though, needs to make a decision soon. The Kennedys said it would be important for a new organizer to be involved in putting on this year’s event so that it has a solid footing going into the next year.
Anybody who takes on the task will have a chore. The event has about a $70,000 budget, with about $20,000 of it coming in the form of in-kind donations. That still leaves about $50,000 in cash that has to be raised. The event has several expenses, including paying for hotel rooms and a meal for participants, which organizers say is a good incentive to get horse owners to go through the considerable work to haul their animals and wagons to Lawrence.
The city, through its grant program funded by hotel bed taxes, has given the event anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 in funding. But Marty said it was his understanding the event wouldn’t be eligible for the grant funding in 2020. The city has instituted a policy where it does not give an event grant funding for more than four years in a row, in an effort to make such events self-sustaining.
Michael Davidson, executive director of the Lawrence convention and visitors bureau, ExploreLawrence, said that also was his understanding. But he said he thought the parade would be able to reapply for grant funding in 2021, if it took one year off from receiving funding. Porter Arneill, a spokesman for the city, confirmed a reapplication would be allowed if the parade took one year off from city funding. (Note: This article originally said organizations lost funding after three consecutive years of receiving grants. Arneill said it is actually after four consecutive years, but he said 2019 will mark the fourth consecutive year of funding for the parade.) In addition to the grant situation, the city also has changed its policy of providing in-kind services such as additional police presence at such events. The parade had an approximately $3,600 bill to pay for such city services last year, Patty said.
Marty and Patty both said the loss of grant funding would be disappointing, but it wasn’t the only factor in the decision to walk away from the event.
“I think we just need a break,” Marty said.
The Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade gets most of its money by selling $200 sponsorships to businesses and individuals who want to support the parade. Marty said Lawrence — unlike a larger metro area like Kansas City — isn’t the type of place that has many large corporations that are ready to donate tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor an event.
The parade, though, does succeed at being a spectacle. Usually about 60 wagons or carriages are part of the parade, and more than 100 horses are part of the event. Both sides of Massachusetts Street traditionally are packed with spectators.
Davidson said he thought there was good evidence that the parade has a positive economic impact in Lawrence. His office ran a report in 2017 and estimated the parade produced about $450,000 in direct visitor spending that year. While he said the CVB can’t organize the parade, he does hope his group can help bring the organizers and other people together to see if the event can continue past this year.
“It is not even the money it brings in so much,” Davidson said. “It is just something that is uniquely Lawrence. It seems like something worth saving.”
The Kennedys, who have been involved with the event for about 20 years, said they know many families feel that way.
“I know there are a lot of families that come together in Lawrence for this every year,” Marty said. “They just kind of bank on the first Saturday in December. That is where they start their Christmas season off, with a trip to downtown Lawrence.
“I hope we get someone to come forward and we can work with them to keep the parade going. It is a Lawrence tradition. I know people will be sad if the event doesn’t go on.”
People who are interested in learning more about becoming an organizer can reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org