The annual spring festival may be the Towson Chamber of Commerce's key fundraiser but Winterfest 2013, which begins with Black Friday, Nov. 29, and runs through the weekend before Christmas, is the chamber's annual key "fun-raiser."

"We draw children and adults into downtown Towson with the promise of giving them a wonderful experience," said chamber President James Jones of M&T Bank.

The chamber adds something new each time "to make it a better and better experience," Jones said and this year Winterfest includes a tree-decorating contest among nearly 40 businesses, restaurants and bars where the 3- to 4-foot high Christmas trees will be displayed.

The decorating contest joins traditional Winterfest activities: special discounts and promotions; the annual tree lighting ceremony; Santa Claus; window art by students; street performers; ice sculptures; roasted chestnuts; Santa's workshop; talking reindeer; a holiday movie; breakfasts with the Grinch and Frosty; and for the adults, mens shopping night, Ho Ho Happy Hours and more.

The chamber spends nearly $12,000, and its volunteers contribute 500 hours of sweat equity to make it all happen.

"Obviously, folks in Towson and the county have plenty of places to go when it comes to spending money for the holidays," Jones said. "Our goal is to support local businesses by dialing up the atmosphere to give people a reason to spend that money here instead of somewhere else."

The big event that signals the beginning of Winterfest is the tree lighting ceremony in Olympic Park on Friday evening, Nov. 29. Cocoa, cider and sweet treats will be offered during the event.

The tree will be just as bright or brighter and more environmentally friendly, according to Zerodraft Maryland, a Towson-based energy conservation services company which is replacing the 2,000 incandescent bulbs of the hardwired 30-foot-high tree and base with LED lights for free.

"We did a calculation in our office just for fun," Kurt Pfund, Zerodraft principal said, "and figured if the tree was lit 12 hours a night for six to eight weeks, it would save the county $1,000 a season.

"And it would probably be forever before the bulbs have to be replaced. The tree probably will have to be replaced before they will."

With the number of vacant storefronts in Towson, in part due to redevelopment underway on several blocks, the chamber has continued its beautification efforts by having county students use the spaces to display their art work.

The work of students from 12 county schools — including Dumbarton and Cockeysville middle, and Stoneleigh and Rodgers Forge elementary schools — portrays Towson's past and present.

"The students love doing this," Maddox said. "It's a real testimony to their creativity."

When Maddox discovered some dirty windows when they put up the artwork on Nov. 19, he said, he was tempted to go out and buy a bottle of Windex and organize a cleaning crew.

But Nancy Hafford, executive director of the chamber, made assurances that the chamber would take care of the problem before Winterfest begins.

Hafford said the trees for the decorating contest, which the chamber is purchasing from Radebaugh's, will be decorated and displayed by the weekend of Dec. 7.

On Fire and Ice Night, Dec. 13, attendees to the event will be given ballots to vote for the tree that is most original or creative, most traditional, most festive and those that best exhibit the Towson spirit.

Contest chairman Colin Exelby of Celestial Wealth Management was surprised by how quickly the chamber heard from businesses wanting to participate. "We're hoping for a healthy competition with businesses trying to one-up each other," Exelby said.

While Exelby hasn't encouraged monetary incentives designed to sway votes, he can envision a restaurant or bar giving out something like free cocoa or cider "to make any one tree more memorable," he said, noting his 3-year-old daughter will be one of the judges.

Hafford said the winners will get "a nice certificate."