By Jim Hagerty
DOWNTOWN — A host of luminaries, volunteers and community partners packed the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Thursday, as organizers officially announced the five-year anniversary of Stroll on State, Rockford’s massive, award-winning outdoor holiday festival.
Continuing the success of the first four, including last year’s event that drew 75,000 people from all over the region, organizers say the festival has transcended everything the core group of planners ever imagined back in 2013.
“The growth has been substantial,” RACVB CEO John Groh said, speaking about the outcropping of what bringing a football-arena size crowd downtown Rockford looks like. “[There were] 3,500 kids who visited Santa; 1,000 fireworks dazzled the crowd in a 15-minute display; 5,000 cups of hot chocolate at the Hot Chocolate Express alone; 30,000 lights were on the official city of Rockford Christmas tree; 19,000 pounds of ice were carved [and] 10,000 people took a horse and wagon ride.”
The Stroll trolleys carried more than 7,000 people to an from downtown last year, Groh said.
This year’s Stroll is Saturday, Nov. 25. An hour has been added to the front end of the party, allowing families to make holiday memories downtown from 2-9 p.m.
The re-imagined Stroll Parade will feature more than its usual horse-drawn wagons and Santa leading the way the tree lighting ceremony. This year, the “super-sized” cavalcade will include more floats, high school marching bands and some surprises as it is broadcast live on WREX Channel 13. There’s more live music, two SantaLand locations, a 5K and additional vendors to accommodate an expanding footprint of what could be another record-breaking year.
“For me, the most magical things that happens are the weeks that lead up to [Stroll on State],” Heartland Community Church Pastor Josh Peigh said.
Peigh was part of the group who dreamed up the concept of Stroll, something that came partly in response to Rockford’s early inclusion on various “bad lists.” He said they also noticed that for years, the people of Rockford, as a community, didn’t celebrate the holidays, evident by the lack of decorations downtown.
“If you think about where we were as a community five years ago,” Peigh said, “it’s hard to believe. We came in this room and most of us were strangers to each other. Now, we don’t stand here as strangers anymore. We walk in here and there are deep meaningful relationships we have built together.”
What downtown businesses say about Stroll:
- “Magic was in the air as the Christmas spirit spread all over Downtown Rockford. Stroll was a huge success, leaving Rockfordians excited to enjoy all of the other awesome shops our city has to offer,” said Jennifer Lancaster, owner of Bath and Body Fusion. “This event is the perfect advertisement for small local businesses downtown, giving us new customers throughout the entire year that wouldn’t have known about us if it wasn’t for Stroll on State.”
- “It’s incredible to see the crowds of people supporting local businesses during Stroll on State each year. We’ve participated since year one and have learned how to make the shopping experience that much greater at our bakery,” said Pauline Happach, owner of Bella Luna Bakery. “With a more stream-lined approach our sales were up 60 percent during the event this year. It’s amazing to get to do what you love and see the crowds of people really embrace it too.”
There were 30,000 people at the first Stroll on State. Attendance doubled the second year, earning the festival the Illinois Bureau of Tourism’s Best in Show award.
Organizers say Stroll on State has a more than $750,000 economic impact on the area. R.