KINGSPORT — When Lisa Childress was a child, she and her family would visit downtown Kingsport every Christmas for the annual evening parade with Santa.
Today, those Christmases spent downtown represent some of her fondest memories from childhood.
“Now I want my kids to experience Christmas downtown. It’s something that we all get excited about,” said Childress.
As executive director of the Downtown Kingsport Association, Childress works to bring more people to the heart of the city at Christmas and all year long.
This year DKA will kick off its holiday season on Saturday, Dec. 6, beginning with a downtown merchant’s open house from 4 to 6:30 p.m., featuring holiday shopping specials, refreshments, carriage rides, a “Santa Bucks” promotion, and pictures with Santa Claus outside The Guilded Nest.
“Our merchants have done this as the official kick off to shopping downtown for years,” Childress said.
In addition, DKA’s gingerbread house contest and exhibit will be held from 4 to 9 p.m. in the Regions Bank lobby. Entertainment will be provided, and Christina Banner, author of “How to Build a Gingerbread House,” will be on hand giving tips and signing books. Banner was the 2004 national gingerbread house winner and the 2005 Food Network Gingerbread Challenge winner.
At 7 p.m. that evening, DKA will host the annual lighting of the Christmas tree at Church Circle. Special entertainment will be provided, as well as hot chocolate sponsored by Oak Hill Funeral Home.
DKA President Mark Freeman said the Christmas festivities help bring people together and create new memories for young and old.
“It’s a tradition to a lot of families and those children who grew up with the tree lighting are now bringing their children,” Freeman said.
DKA’s Christmas activities will mark the end of a year packed with events designed to draw people to the downtown district.
An eventful year
DKA kicked off this year’s events in the spring with Evening with the Arts at the Main Art Center, at the DKA office on Main Street. The event showcased the original artwork of local artists. DKA partnered with Holston Valley Medical Center in the effort, and through ticket sales and art sales, was able to contribute $1,300 to the Children’s Miracle Network as a result of the event.
“We feel as a nonprofit, to be able to give back to the community is a big deal,” Childress said.
On the Fourth of July, DKA brought thousands of people to downtown Kingsport for festivities that started at 5 p.m. and lasted through the evening. The event featured the DKA Kids Zone, a photography exhibit, musical entertainment and a fireworks display sponsored by Holston Valley Medical Center.
In addition to the thousands of people who gathered downtown for the event, throngs of others gathered at various points around the city to view the fireworks. Freeman said he hopes DKA can expand the Fourth of July celebration in the future to include other areas of the city.
DKA marked the start of Fun Fest this year with its annual Mardi Gras event, where folks from throughout the region gather along Broad Street for music, children’s activities, and the popular bead toss.
“We probably had 7,000 people downtown for Mardi Gras,” Childress said.
Regions Bank served as the main sponsor for the event.
DKA is also involved in other activities in the downtown area, including Tomato Fest at the Farmer’s Market, and Broad Street Cruise-In, an event sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police and supported by DKA.
And last fall, DKA held its first annual Railgrass festival, which highlighted the region’s railroad and musical history. The event included sold-out bus excursions into Southwest Virginia, as well as dining on a passenger rail car.
Freeman said DKA hopes to offer more tours into the coalfields of Southwest Virginia during next year’s Railgrass festival.
DKA also held its annual city employee appreciation picnic, serving more than 600 city employees for their efforts throughout the year.
“We try to say thank you to those city employees because without them, we couldn’t do anything,” Childress said.
And DKA hosted the Neil Danehy Classic Golf Tournament, and presented a $500 scholarship sponsored by Eastman Credit Union.
In addition to events and activities, DKA is involved in economic redevelopment in the downtown area. This year, it continued renovations to the old Kesterson property, which it purchased in 2005. Freeman said renovations are nearing completion. The top floor has already been sold for residential purposes, while DKA plans to retain the first floor as an income-producing property, available for rent for meetings, seminars and other events.
Freeman said DKA would probably have been better off tearing down the property and starting over.
But DKA couldn’t do that, Childress said.
“You’ve got to work for historic preservation. You don’t believe in tearing down buildings. You take every opportunity to save those old buildings. That’s such an important factor in our history,” she said.
Freeman said DKA has also purchased the vacant lot next to the Kesterson building, and plans to convert it into a day-time park with sculptures. The park will be enclosed with wrought iron, and the gate will be opened during the day and closed at night. The park will also be available for rent.
And DKA owns the Gem Theater on Main Street, which houses the DKA office and conference room, as well as the Main Art Center gallery.
Grants, taxes, membership and merger
In 2008, DKA was recertified as a Tennessee Main Street program and it received certification from the National Trust For Historic Preservation as well.
With those certifications, DKA hopes to be included on the National Park Service Web site, which could help boost tourism to downtown.
Childress said she hopes to work with other Main Street programs in the region to hold coordinated efforts to draw more people to the area.
Because of its Main Street status, DKA was able to apply and receive a $23,000 Innovation Grant from the state this year, which was used to purchase new banners for downtown, Web page development, and advertising.
DKA also received a facade grant from the city for the Kesterson property, as well as a grant from the Kingsport Convention & Visitors Bureau.
And as a Main Street community through DKA, Kingsport played host this year to the Jon Schallert retail sales seminar for businesses. Kingsport was one of three cities across the state to host the event, which was paid for by the state.
Including the seminar, DKA received nearly $40,000 in grants this year.
“Over the last three or four years we have been very strong in trying to submit for grants. And grant money can go a long way,” Childress said.
Freeman pointed out that DKA is a nonprofit organization. However, it is not exempt from property taxes or sales taxes. This year, the organization will pay about $4,000 in property taxes. In addition, it generated nearly $6,300 in sales tax revenue this year through art sales at the Main Art Center, and beer sales during the Twilight Alive summer concert series.
Freeman noted that DKA is a membership organization. Members can be anyone or any organization that believes in DKA’s goal of improving, sustaining and promoting the downtown area. Individual memberships are available for $50, and members receive DKA’s newsletter, which has been recognized by the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association with a Pinnacle Award.
Also this year, DKA wrapped up conversations with officials from the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce on a possible merger of the two organizations.
Mayor Dennis Phillips had suggested the merger idea in the spring of 2007. Officials from the two organizations held several meetings, and ultimately decided to remain as separate entities.
However, both organizations agreed to work together to cross-promote events and activities, and to support one another in various efforts.
Celebrating the year
DKA recognized its volunteers and celebrated its accomplishments of the year during its 43rd annual silent and live auction Thursday night at the MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center.
The following is a list of awards presented by the organization.
• The “Above & Beyond the Call of Duty” award went to Jessica Trivette and Kirk Horner for their work during the year.
• The “Ainslie Award of Excellence” was given to Northeast State Allied Health and the Kingsport Housing & Redevelopment Authority for the Hope VI project.
• The “Bob Lee Heart of Gold” award went to Dick and Phillis Fortney and Denise Freeman.
• The “Peggy Turner, I Love This Place” award was given to Bill Greene at the Jan Mar restaurant and Marty Mullins at Wallace News.
• The “Joranium Award” went to the city of Kingsport and Holston Valley Medical Center for the Watauga Street roundabout.
• The “Norman Sobel Lifetime Membership” award went to Mike May.
• The Outgoing President’s Award was presented to Mark Freeman.
• The DKA President’s Award went to Larry Crawford.
• The Main Art Center’s “Gem’y Award” was given to Fred Martin and Sheryl Daniels.
For more information on DKA, visit www.downtownkingsport.org.