Though a single snowflake has yet to stick in the city thus far this season, residents stepped up their Christmas spirit as kids criss-crossed through Portage collecting festive cookies Saturday morning.
“By 9:30 a.m. they were all gone,” Portage Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Hanson said of the 120 boxes the Chamber distributed for the annual Cookie Walk. “The last couple years, they have sold out ahead of time.”
The yearly pastry scavenger hunt started at 9 a.m. with families wasting no time to get out visiting shops on the clear, mild Saturday morning.
“Shopping Small Saturday was pretty good for us. We had a lot of people in here, so that was great,” said Rita Briant, owner of Prairie Flower Beads of the previous weekend. “Black Friday, not so much — we can’t compete with big box stores. I don’t have TVs and electronics. I think so far things are going good.”
At her store, visitors were treated to a delicate Scandinavian cookie, the krumkake, being served off the ends of two sticks by Art Briant.
“They are fried one at a time on a flat iron, and then you roll them on a cone. And then if you really want to get creative, you can fill them with whipped cream and strawberries,” Rita Briant said. “But if you do that they get soggy, so you have to eat them right away.”
The year’s downtown holiday events have largely been sponsored by the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce, in the case of the Cookie Walk, and Downtown Portage Inc. Briant credited young entrepreneurs with bringing vitality to the overall mission of drawing visitors to Portage.
“They have new ideas, they are younger people, and they have a little bit more energy than we do,” she said. “And I think they want to do more activities downtown and have more events, incorporate new ideas and I think we needed that shot in the arm.”
Abra Shimpach of Portage Downtown Inc. and manager at Forever Yours Jewelry helped organize the city’s holiday light parade the previous Saturday.
“We got a lot of great feedback about the parade,” Shimpach said. “The weather was perfect, so we had a great turnout. They really liked the performance before — at least that’s what I heard.”
Last Saturday marked Shimpach’s first year being involved with Santa’s reindeer, handing out treat bags and information on the citywide elf hunt, in which business owners hid elves in their stores for kids to find and rewarded them with treats. It was possibly one of the largest turnouts for the event, Shimpach said, relaying the observation of other, more experienced participants.
“A lot of the kids loved the elf hunt, and I went around to some of the other businesses afterward and they all said it was great with the foot traffic and they love seeing the kids get excited, so that went over well, too,” Shimpach said. “Next weekend is Living Windows, and then I think DPI is done for the year until spring, unless we decide to sneak something else in there. Then it is taking a breather.”
After Living Windows, business owners will get a moment to themselves before all attention goes to their own stores’ holiday plans for the last big push to Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“We’ve had a lot of people on the Cookie Walk today and they’re looking around and some are buying and some are making notes,” said Tom Dugan, one of the vendors at the Mercantile. “So I’d say all in all, we’re happy with the way things have been going so far — looking for them to get even better.”
He estimated that at the Mercantile, the various sellers have been up year over year this season, possibly on account of overall economic growth “starting to shake some money loose.”
“If it all comes together, we’ll be smiling at the end of the year,” Dugan said.
The Cookie Walk has been going on for about 17 years, by Hanson’s offhand count.
“It’s nice how people in this town have kept things like this going,” said Carrie Eckhardt at Smart Woman shoes and accessories, serving frosted sugar cookies.
“You’re a very good cook,” a little boy told her as his family left the store.
“You enjoy your cookies,” Eckhardt replied.
“The Cookie Walk always brings lots of people, and it’s great to show them what we have to offer and we’ve had a busy morning,” said Cindy Polnow, who baked, frosted and sprinkled cookies at Fancy Pants. “Every store bakes and delivers 120 cookies to be passed out on this day. It’s fun to see the little faces make choices.”
“If I look at this event,” Hanson said, “any business can participate — you can be a retail business, you can be a restaurant, you can be a service, a professional, and we do have all of those participating, because the idea is to let the consumer know that you are here and are welcoming them in.”