Hampden merchants debate necessity of Santa on The Avenue

The Hampden Village Merchants Association has a new Santa clause.

After much debate over the need for a Santa Claus to stroll The Avenue during the holidays and how much the said Santa should be paid, the merchants association voted Wednesday, Dec. 12, to pay a Santa $70 per hour, on the two Saturdays and Sundays preceding Christmas.

Santa, aka Geoffrey Harris, of Remington, will walk West 36th Street and Falls Road from noon to 6 p.m., starting this weekend. He will visit businesses, greet customers, and spend one hour each day at the store Soft and Cozy Baby posing for photos with children, according to a contract approved by the merchants in a show of hands at the association meeting.

The 53-year-old handyman, who has a whitish beard and wears eyeglasses, has played Santa for six years, and will be making $5 more an hour than he did last year, he said.

Harris most recently appeared as Santa last week at a holiday party for the Hampden Family Center, where he donated his time, organizers said.

Harris said his family used to own the store Passion Fish, on The Avenue.

Harris, wearing a Santa hat, attended the meeting, at which one retailer questioned the need for a Santa at all, while others suggested limiting his hours.

Harris sat impassively as Sue Caldwell, owner of the knitting store Lovelyarns, argued against employing Harris or any Santa for that matter.

"As a business owner, it's difficult for me to quantify the benefit of a Santa. It's a lot of money," she said. "I would like to see the money spent on a new logo" for Hampden merchants.

But Lesley Jennings, owner of the store doubledutch Boutique, said having Santa is good for business. She said customers have told her that having Santa makes The Avenue "more festive."

Charlotte Hays Murray, owner of the art and furniture store Charlotte Elliott, wanted the association to hire her friend to play Santa for less money. But Murray left the meeting early due to illness and didn't get a chance to speak on the issue

Harris was originally due to earn $1,680 for his role as Santa on The Avenue, working from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the two weekends.

But several other merchants began chipping away at the proposed hours, with association president Benn Ray proposing 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Only then did Harris weigh in, complaining it takes a long time for him to make one circuit along Falls and 36th Street.

"1 to 5 is not enough time," he said.

Someone else suggested noon to 5 p.m.

"I guess I could hurry up," Harris said.

For the record, the association has enough money in its budget to pay a Santa, said treasurer Elissa Strati, owner of Avenue Antiques.

"Santa Claus is one of (the) line items that's in here," Strati said.

The Santa issue has been brewing since last month's merchants meeting, Ray said. He said the merchants have paid for a Santa each holiday season for at least 10 years and vote each year on compensation for Santa.

"Usually, it's an up or down vote and we move on," Ray said.

But at last month's meeting, some merchants began to question whether Santa's services cost too much. That led to further discussion on Facebook, Ray said.

He said Harris is paid far less than many other Santas, who typically charge $150 to $500 per hour.

Some merchants at Wednesday's meeting said that if the association is going to spend money on a Santa, it should have a marketing aspect, such as featuring the Santa in newspaper ads or calendar of events listings, or having Santa hand out association brochures about businesses in Hampden.

The association finally approved a combination of motions by Jay Caragay, owner of the coffee shop Spro, and the Rev. Michael Dubsky, pastor of St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The association agreed to revisit the issue in January or February, in hopes of setting policy for the future.

"I just think in December, it's late in the game to be making this decision," Dubsky said.

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