By Lauren Zaepfel
On Saturday, Dec. 5, residents of North Tonawanda and Western New York gathered around Webster Street to partake in the annual Gateway Cities Winter Walk.
A steady flow of people waited in line for a free ride on a 1955 American La-France fire truck, courtesy of Sweeney Hose Co. No. 7.
Around them, shoppers carried multiple bags, as they visited the various local shops on the bustling street.
"Everybody's having a great time. There's lots of kids, they're all happy and having fun and all the grownups are having fun," said Winter Walk chair Heather Kalisiak during the event.
The entire event was organized by the Downtown Merchants Association's Winter Walk committee.
Committee member Donne Burgio, a YWCA board member and a member of the Downtown Merchants Association, volunteered to help with family-friendly activities. She reached out to surrounding community members, including local businesses in the Tonawandas, encouraging them to donate to the various Winter Walk festivities.
"It's a family-fun event. Fortunately, we collect enough donations that we can offer all these events with no cost to the families," she said. "It's a big thing. Everything is free to these children. They can take a pony ride; they can see a magic show; they can come here to the events at the (YWCA); they can go to the petting zoo; face painting; cookie decorating - there just is a lot of things to offer."
Burgio said almost 200 children waited in line to visit Santa at the YWCA the morning of Winter Walk.
"Santa's lap, I'm sure, was pretty tired," she said, laughing.
Santa wasn't the only visitor to the YWCA that day. Disney's "Frozen" stars Anna and Elsa were available for photos, as well.
"This year they are doing pictures. ... You can have an instant picture and there's no charge to the families and that's wonderful," Burgio said.
Around the corner, children were working away on creating their own life-sized gingerbread people, an activity newly sponsored by the Carnegie Art Center.
"We got more people than we could imagine. We ran out of stuff. We had to end it early because the children just enjoyed it," Burgio said. "Next year, I think we're going to have to figure on getting more supplies and more helpers."
Overall, Burgio said Winter Walk serves as a positive event for families, residents and the overall community as a whole.
"I think it's a big boost to the community, and it shows what we have to offer here and it helps our economic development," Burgio said. "I think the families have all enjoyed it."
"It lets us, being the merchants and the sponsors of the Winter Walk, give back to the community, and it brings people down to see that downtown North Tonawanda has gone through this revitalization. And that makes a huge difference," Kalisiak said. "We're back to being that small town 'main street' that everybody thinks of and being so iconic."
Posing for a photo with Disney's "Frozen" stars Anna and Elsa.
Members of Sweeney Hose Co. No. 7 sell raffle tickets for the "A Christmas Story" event to raise money for the firehall. From left: Joe Lavey, Peter Schenier, Jamie Doeing and Kyle Reeves.
Elise and Owen Rambally help feed the animals at the petting zoo outside the YWCA.