CHAMPAIGN — With its primary sponsor dropping out, the annual Parade of Lights through downtown Champaign will undergo some noticeable changes this year.
The Champaign Center Partnership has taken over the event planning for the 11th annual parade from the Champaign Park District, which was forced to withdraw its financial support while it battles a tight budget. Under its new organizers, the parade will move to Thanksgiving weekend, and its route will be shortened and more focused in the downtown area.
The parade will start at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 26, one week earlier than normal.
T.J. Blakeman, a city planner and executive director of the Champaign Center Partnership, said one reason for the change is that organizers are hoping for warmer weather. The parade was canceled in 2007 when officials decided it was too cold to go on.
"We've already been iced out one year," Blakeman said. "We've been a near miss in a couple previous years."
Blakeman believes the earlier date will also effectively extend the holiday shopping season for area businesses. Organizers hope to make the parade a part of a "Shop Local Saturday" event, intended to capitalize on shoppers' tendency to start their holiday purchasing after Thanksgiving.
"The whole point is that, if you're spending Black Friday at the big boxes, then Saturday is the chance to get down to some wonderful, locally owned businesses to do your Christmas shopping," Blakeman said.
The Parade of Lights will be the capstone on a full day of holiday-themed events, Blakeman said. Organizers are still working on what those events will be — and they are looking for groups to sponsor them.
Registration for Parade of Lights floats is now open through Nov. 4. If registrants sign up by Oct. 21, the $25 entry fee will be waived.
The partnership has "raised enough to get the parade going, which is good. We have a number of really good sponsors who have stepped up to help us in that regard," Blakeman said. But he added, "Every new event that we look to do on that Saturday, we'll be looking for sponsors."
He hopes individuals can get involved, too.
"I'd like to broaden this," Blakeman said. "I'd like the community to really feel like this is their parade."
But, at the very least, he said, there's a good chance Santa Claus will be visiting a local business.
The parade route will be shorter this year, too.
That will lower the cost of police overtime needed to oversee the event, and it will keep traffic flowing and make parking more accessible. State and Randolph streets and University Avenue will remain open to traffic during the parade this year, Blakeman said.
Keeping the parade centered in downtown will keep more people there, too, "which means the sidewalks will be busier," Blakeman said. "Hopefully, folks will frequent the shops afterward, they'll have dinner after, that kind of thing."
Organizers hope this year's changes will ultimately give residents — especially those with family in town for Thanksgiving — something to do during that weekend and showcase Champaign in a positive light.
"We're going to try it," Blakeman said. "We'll see how it goes."