Newton deals with 'magical' attendance

| 29 Nov 2017 | 12:00

    By Laurie Gordon
    — The idea was ingenious. Ryan Stapel, owner of ReCollectables, in Newton, had the vision of bringing a Harry Potter theme to Newton to accompany the annual Holiday Parade and Small Business Saturday. The theme saw businesses featuring Harry Potter accents such as "Butterbeer," magic wands and a "Sorting Hat." The only issue? Apparently, when you say “Harry Potter,” fans come running, and the town saw tens of thousands fill its streets. With some last minute planning, however, when “shares” on social media about Newton's Diagon Alley started going viral, the town rallied.
    Hosted by the Spring Street Merchants Circle, Newton was transformed into Diagon Alley, the shopping thoroughfare in the Harry Potter books and movies, from 11 am to 5 pm on Saturday. The idea came about when Stapel, and his wife, Jacky, were going through stock and ordering and came across some Harry Potter items.
    “My wife said 'What if we just turned our shops into Diagon Alley after the parade? Maybe that would keep people in town.'”
    A small group of businesses form the Spring Street Merchant Circle and the group took the idea and ran with it. Stores were going to take on the facade of various shops in the Harry Potter books and there would be Harry Potter related specials.
    Mugworts and muggles got word and Newton became the go-to Small Business Saturday destination.
    Mayor Wayne Levante said, “There was traffic all the way down to Byram heading to Newton and the influx of people was totally unexpected up until about two weeks before when it went viral online. [Stapel] contacted me and told me posts about the Harry Potter element had been shared about two to three thousand times. Then, a few days later, that number was up to 100,000 shares. We realized this was going to be much bigger than we though so we got together with Chief Richardson and Tom Russo and came up with some contingency plans for parking and shuttling including using area school parking lots, the county college and the Shop Rite Park and Ride.”
    The mayor added, “Based on Snapchat check ins, over 35,000 people attended the event. I'm not sure how accurate that is but we're talking tens of thousands were here. The merchants and everyone else did their very best in that short amount of time to make it work for this first time event.”
    There were some who thought the town was ill prepared. Valerie Marsh drove up to Newton from Flanders with her grandson for the event.
    “My grandson is nine and really loves Harry Potter," Marsh said. "I was a little upset when I heard that people from New York wanted to come and the buses would be shuttling people from the college and the Shop Rite. I live in Flanders and coming up from my side, there was no parking and after trying all of the side streets there was nothing so we ended up parking at the Dollar General. My grandson could hardly see through all of the people. There weren't that many stores open on Spring Street and lines were weaving all over the place. Where were they going? There were no bathrooms or vendors on the street to give us something to do and there was no food unless you waited in one of those lines. This could have been a good event but a once-a-year event is not going to revitalize Newton.”
    “Clearly the town wasn't expecting or prepared to host thousands of people,” said Steve Vezos who grew up in Fredon and whose parents own Town and Country Deli which is located down the street from Spring Street on Woodside Avenue. “With that said, I believe the Newton police department did an exceptional job ensuring the crowd's safety. I noticed that they closed several roads and directed traffic away from the crowds. Also I saw several officers patrolling Spring Street.” Vezos added, “For future events, access to restroom facilities on spring st, i.e. portable toilets, informing and opening up the event to non-Spring st Newton businesses-specifically food-that wish to participate in the event. (I envision food stands showcasing local restaurants, but vendors would need to be consistent with Harry Potter theme), signs on major roads with direction to parking areas dedicated to the event with shuttles, vendor use of the sidewalk to avoid dangerous situations of overcrowding stores/long lines, cleaning crews available to tend to garbage, more garbages available and the town agreeing to decorate spring street for the event.”
    Mayor Levante said that given the short notice, the town did a great job and that in the future, it will be better prepared.
    “Although there weren't enough activities to accommodate that many people, people were happy to be around others with the common Harry Potter interest. We plan on doing this again and really look forward to ramping it up,” he said. “Despite some setbacks, look at the photos being posted online... people had a great time being surrounded by those with a common interest. There were people waiting for dinner at a local restaurant well after the event ended. It was a scene out of NYC or Hoboken nightlife, right here in our county.”
    Town Manager, Thomas S. Russo, Jr., said, “The Town was most pleased with the efforts of both the Chamber of Commerce and merchants in making the Parade and Harry Potter event truly memorable and successful. Special credit goes to Nancy Woods of the Chamber and Ryan Stapel of ReCollectibles for their herculean efforts.” He added, “The Harry Potter event was coordinated by Stapel and the merchant. We assisted with Police and Public Works personnel, as well as the shuttle bus from the Park N Ride and County College.”
    Stapel said, “The problem was that it really wasn't an event. There wasn't a committee or money but just the businesses putting this together.” When things started to go viral, Stapel said, “The Board of Ed, the president of the college, the mayor and a lot of other great people from the town stepped in and helped us. We tried to do the best we could.”
    “It wasn't an event but turned into one basically overnight and somehow six volunteers coordinated for what is being reported as a 35,000 attendance,” Stapel said. “There's already talk of doing this again next year but this time we'll have a year to plan it rather than 10 days,” Stapel said.
    And of those who criticized the event, he said, “Bring it on. We can take it and we were even asking on Saturday what we could do to improve it. People are going to be critical of something that came together so fast, but we also got a lot of positive feedbback and will surely keep track of people's suggestions.”
    Bonnie Bitondo, the owner of Maxwell & Molly's Closet Pet Boutique said, “I did not realize the strength of the Harry Potter following. The passion and the sheer numbers were extraordinary. Maxwell and Molly’s experienced a record number of sales and a record number of visitors. It also generated tremendous business and unprecedented exposure for the surrounding area.”
    Of the lines, she said, “Lines are a sign of success. No one could have predicted the crowds but my hat is off to Ryan who had the vision and courage to conceive the idea and the energy and perseverance to carry it through.”
    Bitondo added, “There is no question in my mind that this should become an annual event. Many new folks experienced our wonderful Holiday Parade, our wonderful community and our vibrant downtown. With the first Harry Potter event under our belts we can tap into the creative talent & the incredible resources of of the Newton Theatre, Drama Geeks, Mirage and All Access. The possibilities are limitless.”
    Nancy Woods, who heads up the Greater Newton Chamber of Commerce said. “I knew there would be interest in Harry Potter, but had no idea it would go so viral. proves the power of facebook! The crowds were amazing and overwhelming.” She added, “The town at the last minute really stepped up to the plate to organize 'park and rides' from different areas. The DPW and the Police all worked really hard! I know that traffic was backed up on all roads leading to town.”
    “Having the parade themed to coordinate with the Diagon Alley event certainly started folks seeing costumes, but the visitors themselves were really into being in character,” Woods said. “I almost had to compare it to Comic Con.”
    Of the nay sayers, she said, “I know there were several negative comments on different Facebook sites, but there were more positive then negative. There were also many great suggestions from people that I think we should take advantage of. I think most realized that the community got overwhelmed with the amount of people who came. I don't think that any community could have anticipated those crowds particularly at this time of year.”
    Woods added, “I see a lot more positives then negatives with this event....Ryan and Jackie Stapel who came up with the idea should be very proud of themselves and all the folks who helped to pull this off in a very short planning period. All in all it put Newton on the map and that's a great thing.”
    Thanks to Staple's vision and the collaboration of the chamber, its members and the town, little ol' Newton drew droves and even caught the attention of The New York Times which ran an article about the event. Moving forward, the mayor said that the merchants definitely want to do the event again next year and may add a few others such as possibly May the Fourth be With You to attract Star Wars fans to town.
    “The merchants don't really want to bring in outside vendors or food trucks, but what we are talking about doing is letting business that are located other than on Spring Street but in the vicinity set up a table or tent on Spring Street,” Mayor Levante said. “Next time there will be many more activities, more food vendors and it will be more fluid. As to this event, aside from the Farm and Horse Show, have you ever seen this many people in Newton? It brought great business not just to Newton but to the entire county.”