Though it may be different this year, the annual Stroll on State promises to be packed with activities as the event spreads out over a month to accommodate COVID-19 concerns.
The eighth annual Stroll on State will be expanded and spread out over a whole month, to meet state-mandated safety measures, while sticking with its mission to support local businesses, gather the community together, decorate downtown, and honor traditions – proving not even a pandemic can take away the awe, joy and wonder of Christmas.
John Groh, president and CEO of Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, the sponsor of the event, says Stroll will not be celebrated on one day with tens of thousands of people packed into Rockford’s downtown, as it’s celebrated most years. Rather, the fun begins on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 28, with expanded in-person and online activities, specials and promotions that run through Dec. 24.
“Stroll is one of our community’s most beloved traditions. Since the onset of the pandemic, it has been our fervent hope that we would be able to hold Stroll on State as we’ve known it in prior years. However, that is not possible or responsible this year. So, while we are not able to gather all together at the same time, we can still come together as a community to celebrate the holidays, support local businesses, and look with wonder to the future and the possibilities it holds,” Groh says.
Kristen Paul, director of destination development for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB), says more of the downtown will be decorated and lit up, compared to past years.
“All of the decorations have been repainted, brightened up, and we have new and more abundant lights, bows, wreaths and garland,” she says. “This year’s decorations will be more than what we have always done.”
Andrea Cook, senior manager of marketing and communications for RACVB, adds that although a lot of changes have been made, the goal is still the same, especially when it comes to supporting local businesses. This year’s participating businesses offer a variety of promotions, contests and incentives throughout the holiday season that will be made known on social media, Facebook pages and gorockford.com.
Cook envisions people coming downtown to experience Stroll, having a visit with Santa, looking at decorations, shopping, and getting something warm to eat and drink before going home to share in the city Christmas tree lighting ceremony and watching fireworks. Expect to find most events from Third to Church and from Jefferson to Chestnut streets.
“While Stroll will look a little different, we are doing the right things to keep people safe while enjoying the holiday season and supporting one another,” she says.
Visits to Santaland can be made Nov. 28-Dec. 19, Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m., at City Hall, 425 E. State St. Bring a gift list for Santa and have a picture taken with him, while being safe by wearing a face mask, socially distancing, and entering the building from the south doors and exiting through the north doors.
Rockford’s Santa, who has been at Stroll each year since its inception, says the children will be a bit disappointed they can’t sit on Santa’s lap, but they will have more opportunities to see him and still make their wishes known.
“I will probably have more time to talk to each child because we are in the comfort of City Hall rather than near the river,” says Santa. “I will be visiting with children over a longer period of time, going at a slower pace, and pictures can be printed on site. I love interacting with the children and seeing the smiles. It’s what the holiday spirit is all about.”
And the children’s wants are not always about toys, he says.
“Sometimes they just want their parent to come home safely from the military. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of requests this year for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and world peace,” adds Santa. “Children have very strong and deep emotional feelings that they don’t always reveal to others, but they will share with me. They almost always have something they want to talk about.”
For those not able to visit Santa in person, Letters to Santa can be put in drop boxes at FurstStaffing, 2580 Charles St.; City Hall; near the city Christmas tree at Davis Park; Janenes Event Design Studio Social Café, 607 W. State St., Studio B; and Illinois Bank & Trust, 4571 Guilford Road and 308 W. State St. Get letters in by Dec. 7 to get a response from Santa.
People are invited to light their own Christmas trees at home when the city tree is lighted for the first time at the end of WREX-TV’s Merry & Bright show from 6 to 7 p.m. on Nov. 28. The show also features holiday-themed stories and special guests. Fireworks will be displayed at five locations around the city (central, north, south, east and west), which will not be announced to avoid large crowds gathering, Groh says.
In addition, moving the city Christmas tree to Davis Park was done for the purpose of getting it on public property, in an open space with a picturesque setting for pictures and making memories.
Fleet Feet owner Melissa Pratt says the traditional Dasher Dash 5K Race will be an “at home edition” this year, with the first 250 people registered receiving medals, a T-shirt, a race flag and cookie cutter (instead of the cookies at the end of the race). This year, participants can have a more festive experience by using the free app RaceJoy, and have the flexibility of completing the run/walk between Nov. 28 and Dec. 24. Sign up at gorockford.com. For a fee, packets can be mailed to those wanting to participate while out of town. Pratt says she got involved with Stroll on State three years ago to showcase the city’s neighborhoods, people and volunteers. It takes about 100 volunteers each year to get ready for the race.
“I’m so excited to do this, even though it will be different this year. It will be fun and you don’t have to get up early to walk or run this year. You can do it any time,” she says.
Rockford Sharefest President Creig Day, one of the original organizers of Stroll on State, says volunteers met months ago to decide if the event could be held this year in spite of the pandemic, and the answer was “absolutely yes.”
“If there was ever a year where we needed beauty, awe, wonder, joy, peace, goodwill and love, it is this year,” he says. “Stroll is who we are as a community, so it must continue.”
Rockford Sharefest is a nonprofit organization made up entirely of volunteers with a mission to “identify, develop and lead projects that empower and release volunteers to use their God-given gifts, abilities and resources to make an impact for the common good.”
Day says it takes about 500 volunteers to make Stroll decorations possible each year.
“People have roots here, and we want them to say they love the city and it feels good to be home. What makes this event so significant is that it changes the way we see and feel life. When we work together, we accomplish things we can’t even dream of doing alone.”
To sign up as a volunteer, go to gorockford.com/stroll-on-state/volunteering. For more information and up-to-date developments, see gorockford.com and Stroll on State Facebook page.