Fighting cabin fever by creating winter fun downtown
Wisconsin winters can seem long, dark and cold. The temptation is strong to hunker down and wait it out. But just because the days are short and frigid, there’s no reason your customers need to be prisoners in their own homes.
You can ward off cabin fever by uncovering the fun side of winter right in your own downtown. In a globalized economy where businesses and workers have more say in where they locate, downtowns can no longer afford to appear lifeless for a quarter of the year. Many people choose places to live based on local culture. Making public places that are inviting all year—not just when it is warm and sunny—is essential to create a dynamic, prosperous community.
This demands strategy. And it requires showcasing your town throughout the winter, and not just during the holiday season. Successful approaches often focus on local identity and character while providing an inviting, vibrant physical environment.
Making winter fun downtown
Inviting spaces attract people, no matter the weather. Winter months offer an opportunity for downtowns to be creative and fun. While full-scale, regularly scheduled winter carnivals or festivals are not always feasible for small towns, there are plenty of creative ideas to bring people downtown during the winter.
Work together on cross-promotions. Shops and businesses can work together to spotlight the downtown as an exciting place to visit. While many communities coordinate decorated windows for the holidays, it might be fun to consider organizing a winter theme that can be used in decorating and displays that also works well for social media and marketing. For example, after the holidays, roll out themes such as “White and Bright,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Dressed for the Winter,” “Cold is Cool” and “Hygge,” a Scandinavian term for coziness. Unveil your theme with a winter walk in which participants vote on their favorite downtown window and storefront displays in a variety of categories. Prizes can be awarded from ballot submissions.
Stage outdoor selfie spots downtown. These can be set up quickly and inexpensively with simple designs. They can be created with plywood or sheet plastic and propped up against a wall or simply painted or temporarily painted on sides of buildings like a mural. Add a sign sparking engagement, such as: “Snap a picture and post on Instagram. Don’t forget to tag @YourMainStreetTag and #coldiscool to be entered in a drawing to win downtown dollars!”
Host a winter warm-up event. Bring local eateries on board to offer samples of chili or soup. Encourage shops to provide hot drinks and treats. This can be done for a nominal charge, organized as a tasting event or a tasting contest with voting. You can also run this event as a fundraiser for a local food bank or other local charity.
Enhance the sidewalks. Adding ice sculptures or other wintry designs to the sidewalks can create a display that gets people excited to see more and explore the entire downtown area. Some towns contract this out to professionals, while others organize a community-run event with voting and awards.
Snow slide. Downtowns situated on hills have the advantage of a natural slope for a winter slide. Block off your street to vehicles and bring in enough snow to create a smooth, slippery surface. Recruit volunteers to help monitor lines for family sliding fun. Add hay bales to the bottom to ensure a safe, soft landing.
Recreational activities. There is no shortage of fun outdoor winter sports that can attract both participants and spectators. Some fun ideas include ice skating, snow baseball, or mini tournaments such as frozen turkey bowling or crokicurl, a game that combines curling and the Canadian board game Crokinole. These can be organized on a downtown parking lot or right on the street. Plan a day of it and urge teams to dress in crazy costumes and focus less on competition and more on fun.
These suggestions were adapted from a blog post from the Canadian group Your Town Rising.
Shorter days and cold weather can test our resolve for getting outdoors. Downtown winter events can be a great way to combat cabin fever and get folks out of the house, even when the weather isn’t ideal. Main Street and Connect Communities around Wisconsin host successful events throughout the winter, some examples of these events include cocoa crawls in Osceola, Oshkosh and Lake Geneva; the Knickerbocker Ice Festival in Lake Mills; the Sturgeon Spectacular in Fond du Lac and the Cabin Fever Fest in Marshfield.
In February 2020, the Osceola Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its first Cocoa Crawl. Attendees were encouraged to wear flannel and come out to escape cabin fever. The event included beverages and treats along with specials and drawings at 17 downtown locations and the ability to vote for favorites to be entered into a drawing to win a Winter Survival Guide. There was also a Winter Obstacle Course for Families at the Mill Pond Park.
Downtown Oshkosh hosted its third annual Downtown Oshkosh Cocoa Crawl in February 2020. It was a family event for all ages, with over 15 participating businesses. Each business offered a specialty hot cocoa, and participants voted for their favorite. Every ballot that was turned in was entered in a drawing for downtown merchant gift cards.
Lake Geneva’s Cocoa Crawl is a family-friendly event in February during Winterfest. The Cocoa Crawl is a free in downtown Lake Geneva. Attendees can stroll, shop, and sample a delicious variety of hot cocoa and sweet treats at the participating establishments. During the crawl, attendees can visit as many of the locations as they would like then go to the Lake Geneva Visitors Center to vote for their favorite chocolate treats and get a free goody bag.
The Knickerbocker Ice Festival is named after a company that harvested ice from Rock Lake in the early 1900s. Each February, the Lake Mills Main Street Program hosts a weekend full of indoor and outdoor events to connect Lake Mills with that icy past. It features family activities throughout Lake Mills and on the frozen lake. Activities include a snowman-making contest, 50/50 cash raffle, downtown retail specials, candlelight snowshoeing and skiing, trivia, a euchre tournament, ice fishing, open golf, ice carvings, cornhole tournament, ice softball, horse-drawn wagon rides and fat-tire bike fun ride.
The Sturgeon Spectacular is Fond du Lac’s February celebration of winter and the big fish that inhabit Lake Winnebago. The festival was created to cure the winter blues and offers many winter activities such as outdoor curling funspiel, amateur snow sculpting competition, sturgeon spearing and the Snow Land Winter Fun Zone in Lakeside Park with family activities. Attendees are encouraged to come out to view snow and ice sculptures and enjoy the many great restaurants and shops downtown.
Cabin Fever Fest is a daylong festival in Marshfield in February. It offers bonfires, s’mores, a cocoa and beer bar, a free kids’ fun run and other winter activities. At the 2020 fest, the Marshfield High School softball team ran food orders from downtown restaurants and delivered them to visitors at the Wenzel Family Plaza. It also featured the Cabin Fever Run, a five-mile and two-mile run/walk made for hearty Wisconsinites.
Identifying community sites for winter fun
They call it “winter placemaking.” It’s the reimagining and repurposing of parks and public spaces during the coldest season of the year to make winter an inviting and social time of the year.
Communities can embrace winter placemaking by taking an Asset-Based Community Development approach, developed by Toronto-based 8 80 Cities.
Individual, cultural, institutional, organizational and physical assets are all present in small towns and rural communities, but it takes an engaged community to embrace and mobilize these assets. By leveraging community assets and capacity, winter placemaking can be done in communities of different sizes and levels of financial resources.
Amplifying winter’s assets
Winter cities, towns and rural communities around the world have been successfully harnessing the assets winter provides. The colder months can create a sense of community of the need to take care of the most vulnerable. Winter communities can amplify local assets and shift models of service to all residents to stay active during winter.
- Broome County, New York: The Office of Aging partnered with local schools to allow local seniors to use the hallways as safe walking spaces before and after school hours during the winter.
- Ottawa, Ontario: The municipal library started a winter cultural access program where museum passes were distributed for indoor fun and ski passes for outdoor fun.
- Rapid City, South Dakota: It converted a parking structure to provide year-round recreational use, including an ice rink in the winter and a splash pad in the summer.
- Grand Rapids, Michigan: The AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities found that residents needed winterized transit stops, which led to the addition of shovels at transit stops for crowd-sourced shoveling.
Important considerations for rural placemaking
In rural or geographically isolated communities, where dedicated facilities are less available, winter can create a particularly high barrier for people to spend time outdoors safely and comfortably. Enjoying the season in such places requires individual transportation and equipment like skis, skates and warm clothing, as well as sufficient time and physical ability. Rural communities should consider partnering regionally to share and promote resources to bring out the best winter has to offer.
- Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee: These two towns have come together, combining their institutional and organizational assets to host several winter events for year-round residents and winter-loving visitors. To remedy the flight and fear of the cold, these towns have joined forces to create Winterfest, which features a Christmas parade through downtown Gatlinburg and added over 5 million lights to the streetscapes of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to tie various events together.
- British Columbia’s Columbia Valley: Four rural mountain towns come together to host the Motion Festival, which includes concerts, light shows, and other events hosted throughout the region.
“Lighter, quicker, cheaper”
Winter placemaking does not require extensive (and expensive) assets. It can be meaningful and based on the assets you have—designed and implemented with the lighter, quicker and cheaper method. According to the Project for Public Spaces, the method has been adopted by communities internationally and is “proof that expensive and labor-intensive initiatives are not the only, or even the most effective, ways to bring energy and life into a community’s public space.”
In addition to the physical intervention in public spaces, the lighter, quicker, cheaper movement can be used to support cross-sector collaborations and to build community capacity and trust, as well as provide inspiration.
Wisconsin communities are often rich in access to nature. This connection can be amplified through placemaking and the adoption of the lighter, quicker and cheaper mentality.
- Devil’s Lake, North Dakota: Devil’s Lake hosts an annual ice fishing tournament supported by local sponsors that builds on the skills and pastimes of residents.
- Ladysmith, Wisconsin: S’mores kits and pop-up fires bring warmth and public life to Ladysmith during the winter. The addition of a heating element and a family-friendly activity creates a lighter, quicker and cheaper way to engage in winter placemaking.
- Anchorage, Alaska: The Nordic Skiing Association encourages local sponsors to decorate Christmas trees for public voting on the best tree. Voters are encouraged to walk through the community visiting decorated trees, providing a lighter, quicker and cheaper way to get people active and together during the winter.
- Bowdoinham, Maine: The Ice & Smelt Festival features lighter, quicker and cheaper events like sidewalk stories that promote scavenger hunts throughout town and educational tours hosted by the local library.
- Whitehorse, Yukon: The Yukon Rendezvous features a community-run yard sale and includes axe throwing (sponsored by a local axe throwing business). In Whitehorse, the lighter, quicker and cheaper movement relied on the community’s skill and dedication.