By Bruce Amaro
---- — When Santa Claus comes to town, some locals want him to change his change his focus to the downtown.
There has been chatter about changing the route of the annual Santa Parade, Haverhill’s biggest social event of the year.
The current longtime route has the parade going from the Bradford Fire Station along Route 125, across the Basiliere Bridge past City Hall. The parade then turns onto Kenoza Avenue and ends at the VFW post.
At the recent Team Haverhill organization’s Possible Dreams conference, some residents suggested exploring a change to the route so the parade would turn onto downtown Merrimack Street after it crosses the bridge, and end in Washington Square with the lighting of the community Christmas tree.
“It was nothing more than another item we put on our list of ideas to talk about. It was a simple discussion as part of the night, and not a special topic we made any plans to act on,” said Alice Mann, moderator of the Possible Dreams meeting, an annual event where people from across the community brainstorm about ways to improve the city.
But the item has caused some chatter in this year that marks the 50th anniversary of the parade.
The owners of two prominent downtown businesses, Barrett’s Specialty Foods at 103 Merrimack St. and the A-1 Deli at 92 Merrimack St., agreed the parade would not do anything to boost their sales. In fact, they said, having the parade downtown would hurt them.
It would disrupt regular traffic, and viewers do not usually stop in to shop during a parade, the merchants said. They also have personal reasons for not wanting the parade to march past their businesses.
“It’s one of the few days that I close because it’s a big event for my family to get together,” said Barrett’s owner Melinda Barrett, who is also a city councilor.
A-1 Deli owner, Robert Meidanis does not see any benefit to his business from the parade.
“It would kill me,” he said about rerouting the parade down Merrimack Street. “Leave it alone. It would not help my business. Leave it the way it is.’’
Across the river in Bradford along South Main Street, merchants support the parade, some of them sponsoring the event. They almost demand that the parade march past their doors.
“I don’t get any business from it, but it’s a tradition,’’ said David Langlois owner of Ohdaddy’s restaurant at 125 South Main St. “People line the street out front to see this once-a-year event. Families get together for this. It’s four hours of a good time for everyone. You can’t beat that,”
By the time the parade goes through Bradford, Pat Saragas the owner of Heav’nly Donuts at 55 South Main St. in Bradford, has done a healthy business.
“I have stores everywhere and this is good for my stores, good for my business,” he said.
People watch the parade from inside his store as it goes by and stay for a while, maybe for a coffee and a doughnut.
“People have to remember the parade is totally sponsored by the public and business community,’’ said Thomas Sullivan, whose father created the parade.
The ability of organizers to make ends meet depends on the public and is also “a testament to businesses in the Haverhill area,’’ Sullivan said.
Some time between 1964 and 1985 the organizers changed from the original route through downtown to the current route through Bradford Square along Route 125 over the Basiliere Bridge and up Main Street to Monument Square. There it follows Route 110 to the VFW building at 64 Kenoza Ave.
The original parade route started downtown and stayed in the city as it wound its way up Winter and Emerson streets onto Route 110 and then to the VFW on Kenoza Avenue.
In 1986, the Santa Parade Committee talked about ways to raise money and return the parade to its original route through downtown.
At a public meeting that year, “We had a huge turnout from the Bradford residents and businesses, who said they wanted the route to stay the same,” said Parade Chairman Roland Ploudre.
Back across the river at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Haverhill which faces Kenoza Avenue on the current parade route, ministry intern Julie Lombardi said, “The church has a hot drink stand of sorts out front. But more important, the place acts as a terminus for the parade, and the parade makes more people aware of the food pantry. I gives it more attention so the parade is important for the church.
“If the parade route did not go to the church, they would not draw as large a crowd, and subsequently not as many donations for the food distribution program,” Lombardi said.
She said she thinks that a change in the route away from the church would impact the success of the food drive.
“It would be a great loss to the pantry and the people who love what they do, there,” she said.
The most recent Santa Parade featured more than 25 floats and more than 12 marching bands. The parade is annually on a Sunday in late November.