With tens of thousands of visitors expected to enjoy 22 events planned next month as part of Downtown in December, some may be blissfully unaware of a time not long ago when such merriment was in short supply.
Jane Jenkins, president of Downtown in December, credits the festivities with solidifying downtown as a top holiday attraction that provides restaurants and a small but growing number of retailers with customers who might otherwise have chosen to stay closer to home in the suburbs.
“The holidays for a lot of families are about building traditions,” Jenkins said. “And many have built traditions on participating in Downtown in December.”
Opportunities for new traditions are being added annually. Over the past few years, the festival has seen the addition of the Chesapeake Energy Snow Tubing at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, the Devon Saturdays with Santa at the Myriad Gardens, and the SandRidge Santa Run.
The Devon Ice Rink, which relocated last year to the Myriad Gardens, is being expanded by 20 percent to accommodate large crowds.
Brand-new additions include the conversion of the empty Myriad Gardens restaurant into a temporary eatery and site of pop-up shops, free weekly holiday movies at Harkins Theater hosted by Continental Resources Inc., and a Winter Market at the gardens hosted by OU Medicine.
“Hopefully we give them something new each year,” Jenkins said. “Those people come back every year — they have an expectation of a quality, family atmosphere.”
It all started in 2002 when a fledgling Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. sought to build a festival based on just two existing events — what was then known as the “Festival of Lights” at the Myriad Gardens (a display still sponsored by Oklahoma Gas & Electric), and the Mayor's Christmas Tree (currently sponsored by SandRidge Energy Inc. in Bricktown).
Mark Funke, who was then president of the Bank of Oklahoma and co-chaired the first year with Ashley Perkins, then an area manager with Southwestern Bell, envisioned creating a winter festival that could someday match the spring Festival of the Arts, one of the top 10 arts shows in the country.
“They're far ahead of where we are today,” Funke said in the weeks leading up to the 2002 launch of Downtown in December. “But five years from now, I can envision we will have a festival atmosphere in downtown Oklahoma City during the month of December very similar to what we have with the arts festival.”
They had high hopes, but Devery Youngblood, the inaugural president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., recalled in a recent interview that just starting up the ice rink (originally at the Civic Center park) was no easy task.
Youngblood said a Bricktown property owner threatened to start his own rival ice rink if it wasn't located in the entertainment district. Organizers, meanwhile, thought the plaza in front of Leadership Square would create the perfect “big city” backdrop for what would continue to be one of the festival's marquee events.
That site, Youngblood said, was too small. The Civic Center park site worked, but Youngblood said city officials had to scramble to provide last-minute electrical lines to the site.
Juliet Nees-Bright, who previously worked with Disney, was hired to help launch the ice rink.
“We were a staff of four,” Youngblood said. “We really stretched everything to make it work. We were fortunate that we had Mark (Funke) with the big vision to launch a version of the arts festival, and we had Ashley (Perkins) who had the experience in helping us with operations.”
When the Zamboni ice-cleaning machine ordered for the ice rink got caught up in a crash on the way up from Texas, Youngblood himself chipped in on shoveling “snow” kicked up by the ice skaters, including on Christmas Eve.
Youngblood said city employees went above and beyond in helping to make the event a success. He credited much of the ice rink's success to a live cam set up by the city's public information office that broadcast footage of skaters on the city's cable channel.
The festival was an instant hit, and after just a few years it was honored by the International Downtown Association.
Organizing for Downtown in December is now done virtually year-round, Jenkins said, with planning for the 2013 festival set to begin with a debriefing among staffers and volunteers shortly after the end of the current festivities.
Suggestions and recommendations by visitors are given careful consideration, Jenkins said, adding that surveys led to the decision to add this year's winter market.
“We look at what works and what doesn't work,” Jenkins said. “We then put it away for 30 days. Then, in April, we get busy. We start getting commitments from folks about dates, about sponsorships, and we're always trying to get in front of it, to prepare for what is next.”