Again this year, happy crowds are converging on the Nicollet Mall for an annual holiday tradition, the Holidazzle Parade. With its colorful floats and sparkling lights, the parade adds a festive note to downtown’s premier shopping district each December. Despite its light, happy glitter, the Holidazzle was a deadly serious undertaking when the first event was held nearly 20 years ago.
The year was 1992. That summer, the Mall of America was preparing to open in Bloomington. Minneapolis leaders eyed the suburban retail behemoth warily, fearful that it could suck the economic energy out of downtown. Their concerns were compounded by a national recession that threatened to put a damper on holiday spending all across the Twin Cities.
But local leaders did not panic in the face of what some were calling the Bloomington “death star.” Led by Harold Brandt from Brookfield Development, the city’s movers and shakers came up with a new plan to entice shoppers downtown during the upcoming holiday season. With his company controlling large swaths of downtown real estate, including the City Center and the newly opened Gaviidae Commons, Brookfield’s leader was motivated by enlightened self interest.
Brandt connected with the other large property owner just down the block from City Center, Dayton’s. He offered a $200,000 contribution from Brookfield to finance a downtown holiday parade, if Dayton’s would match it. The City of Minneapolis agreed to throw in $1 million, and a deal was struck.
More money raised
“The best marketing and creative minds in Minneapolis met and plotted and raised more money,” the Star Tribune’s Sally Apgar would later write. “In short order, a new holiday tradition — Holidazzle — was created. No one involved was going to let the lights of this downtown dim, yet alone die.”
In July 1992, as plans for Holidazzle were being unveiled, the Star Tribune applauded the newfound energy on the part of the city’s business and civic leaders. In an editorial entitled “Downtown Minneapolis is Ready for Round One,” the paper declared: “The Downtown Council put up its dukes last week in response to the Mall of America’s impending retailing punch. A new parking plan, a slick advertising campaign and a Holidazzle Christmas parade are healthy signs that downtown retailers and city officials want to capitalize on the assets of downtown Minneapolis.”
“Holidazzle will be a Walt Disney-type parade that will entertain downtown visitors four evenings a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas,” the Star Tribune went on to report. “A preview by the Downtown Council last week at the State Theatre indicates that the real thing will be worth a special visit to downtown.”
When the Holidazzle’s first parade was held on Nov. 27, 1992, the Friday after Thanksgiving, the paper was there to cover the event.
Seven lighted floats, bands …
“A giant string of Christmas tree lights danced and glowed its way down the Nicollet Mall during Friday night’s opening Holidazzle parade in Minneapolis,” the Star Tribune reported. “The parade featured seven lighted floats with nursery-rhyme and fairytale themes, along with bands, choirs and celebrity grand marshals. The parades, holiday lights and storefront window displays are designed to draw families downtown.”
That first event did what it was supposed to do — boost retail traffic and sales downtown during the critically important holiday shopping weeks. “Hats off to everyone who worked for Holidazzle,” declared one happy Nicollet Mall department store manager after the last parade of the season was held. “It worked and it brought Christmas traffic.”
An earlier example
In 1992, Brandt and his colleagues were following in the footsteps of another group of downtown leaders. Twenty five years earlier, those leaders had rallied to confront the suburban “death star” of their era — Southdale — when they created the Nicollet Mall.
Fast forwarding to 2011, despite the best efforts of its local promoters, downtown Minneapolis retailing continues to lose market share to a vast array of competitors scattered throughout the metro area. “People still shop in downtown Minneapolis, but fewer of them seem to make a point of going downtown to shop,” noted the Star Tribune’s Eric Wieffering in a recent article.
Despite lagging retailing sales, downtown still has other economic strengths, as Wieffering points out, including an employment base of 165,000 and a residential population of 35,000.
In coming years, downtown Minneapolis may have to lower its sights to focus on serving its workers and its residents while its role as a major metropolitan retail magnet continues to decline. But we can hope that, in the decades ahead, Holidazzle will still be there on the Nicollet Mall to enchant thousands of Twin Cities families, as it has done for the last 20 years.