Santa Bears line the display shelves at the Dayton’s Project, button eyes twinkling as shoppers browse the downtown Minneapolis holiday market.
This year’s bears come dressed in knit caps and a 2023 sweater. Cashiers tuck each purchase into a reusable cloth tote bearing the image of the same bear. On busy days, lines for the bears can stretch through the former department store.
From time to time, collectors ask whether they could just have a Santa Bear delivered instead of trekking to Nicollet Mall.
No, Mich Berthiaume tells them. Come downtown.
Good things come to those who come downtown.
“We’ve got to get people down here,” said Berthiaume, a retail expert. She worked all year to prepare for this six-week Winter Maker’s Market, hoping to give shoppers a reason to stop by this season.
Come for the Santa Bears, stay for everything else this city has to offer.
“Downtown’s open,” she said. “You can go to the theater, you can go to Zelo, you can go to a sporting event. It’s wide open.”
The same Waterford crystal chandeliers that lit the way for Dayton’s customers in the 1920s glow over the heads of shoppers browsing displays from 80 small retailers, including dozens of new shops and artists Berthiaume recruited this year.
Office workers shopped for holiday gifts on their lunch breaks. Santa Bear collectors stayed to fill their shopping baskets.
Parents and grandparents led a tour of the refurbished Dayton’s, pointing youngsters toward the spaces that hold their favorite memories. That’s where the Sky Room used to be. That’s where we registered for our wedding china. That’s where we met Santa Claus for the very first time.
Outside on the street? That’s where Minnesotans used to come together to watch the holiday parades, night after night, decade after decade.
The Mall of America might have had roller coasters and a Rainforest Cafe, but downtown Minneapolis had Holidazzle. Some things you could only find downtown. Good things came to those who came downtown.
When 21 nights of holiday parades grew too costly, Holidazzle reinvented itself as an outdoor winter market. The city filled Loring Park with vendors, ice skaters, lights, music, animatronic yetis, live alpacas. The air in the park smelled like cinnamon and cocoa.
But even that grew too expensive. The Minneapolis Downtown Council cancelled Holidazzle this year.
Which leaves downtown’s biggest boosters with the job of convincing visitors that there’s so much more to do downtown than touring the empty spaces where the things we liked used to be.
So they brought in artists to decorate the shop windows along Nicollet Mall. They filled vacant retail space with pop up shops. They organized weeks of holiday concerts inside downtown skyscrapers and opened the City Center for roller skating.
Foot traffic on Nicollet Mall is 30% lower than it was before the pandemic, but the number of feet on the street have been going up month after month this year. Only 65% percent of downtown office workers are back at their desks. How you look at that statistic depends on whether you see your downtown as one-third empty or two-thirds full.
Downtowns may no longer be places where people have to come to work every day. So cities will just have to make downtown the sort of place people want to come.
Adam Duininck, brand-new president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, made his way through the winter market, angling for a booth that had caught his daughter’s eye the other day.
Shopkeeper Katie White beamed as she showed off her polymer jewelry creations. The business had started as art therapy at the Mayo Clinic while she was waiting for a heart transplant. The nurses liked her creations so much, she started selling them.
Around her, other makers set out displays of everything from pottery to parkas. The sort of gifts you can’t order on Amazon. The sort of quirky, cool shops you might want to browse for yourself.
“We just want people to come downtown and spend time here,” Duininck said, as White tucked his purchases – unidentified, in case any 10-year-olds are reading the newspaper today — into a gift bag.
The more, the merrier. One person comes downtown and has a great time, they tell a friend, that friend tells a friend and eventually it’s no longer news that people downtown are having a perfectly nice time.
“Come shop, come eat, come see a play,” he said. “Come for the full downtown experience.”
You can find a running list of places to go and things to do downtown at mplsdowntown.com.