Houlton group wants to draw more downtown foot traffic with Ricky the Elf

7 months ago

HOULTON, Maine — A revitalized downtown business committee is working to bring back the downtown’s foot traffic, inspired by stories of Houlton’s lavish holiday window displays that drew families from shop to shop around Market Square in the 1960s.

To extend their knowledge, a handful of committee members, along with Ketch, attended the national Main Street America March conference in Boston to meet with business owners from around the country and to learn what other towns are doing, said Nancy Ketch, Houlton Community Development director. 

The Houlton Downtown Renaissance Committee wanted downtown business owners to be more involved in the group’s planning of new events and promotions when the committee reconvened post-COVID-19 last fall, Ketch said.

So the group kicked off a Roving Elf program that drew people to various downtown shops to find Ricky the Elf based on clues posted on Facebook, said Katie Sloat, a member of the Renaissance Committee and owner of the Serendipitous Dragonfly. 

The reconvened committee has a new energy, but so does Houlton’s downtown. A few years ago there were vacant storefronts and not much activity. Today, there are no vacancies because shop spaces are filled with places to eat, live music, coffee houses, hip shops, a bustling farmers market and a movie theater with plans to bring live-streaming concerts to Market Square.

“Houlton is amazing. The downtown is amazing. The shop owners are friendly and accommodating,” said Renaissance Committee member Roxanne Bruce, who owns the Shiretown Ale House and Shiretown Gaming. “We just want more people to join us.”

Last year Ricky the Elf tried to hide in a cosplay helmet, but somebody found him.  (Shiretown Gaming )

Last year’s Ricky the Elf event was a success, with 182 people following his adventures on Facebook, and 42 completing the necessary visits to enter to win the prize.

But some were unable to collect all the signatures, Bruce said. 

“Tons of people came to me and said I wish there was an elf in every store and we could get all the signatures at once,” she said. “We had people coming from Bangor and a family came from Massachusetts to find the elf.”

To get a jump on the upcoming holiday season, the renaissance committee will invite downtown businesses to participate in an expanded Roving Elf event aimed at drawing more people downtown, perhaps to shops they have never visited, Ketch said.

The committee decided to have more elves join Ricky’s adventures this year. Participating downtown businesses will each have an elf that they will name, then create a backstory and scenarios for it. The elves’ capers will be posted on Facebook every day. 

The completed elf signature papers will be dropped into a drawing for a basket of gifts from all the participating shops. Last year’s basket had $200 in prizes and this year could be even more, Bruce said.

This event is especially popular with kids, she said.

The committee hopes to get all the elves in the annual Holiday Light Parade on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The elves will be in the downtown businesses after the parade. 

“I think there is a real exciting energy in the downtown,” Ketch said. “In the last couple years, I have really seen a difference and that’s why this committee has gained steam and is moving ahead. There are new businesses, new property owners who want to see something happen and they are coming together to do it.”