By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Parade grand marshals Carol and Gerry Davies could tell Stroll on State would be busy this year from the moment the procession began, but it was the first turn of their red convertible that revealed the magnitude of the masses.
“We thought there were a lot until we turned on State Street, and then we realized how many people were out there celebrating,” Gerry Davies said.
Blessed with sunny skies and mild November temperatures, thousands of people filled downtown streets on Saturday for the city’s annual kickoff to the holiday season.
It will be a few weeks until the event’s attendance, which is calculated by an analytics firm using cell phone data, is determined. But the president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, which produces the event, said crowds felt like they had returned to prepandemic levels. In 2017 and 2018 more than 80,000 people had strolled. Last year, about 62,500 people attended.
“Coming across the bridge and looking up State Street it was just a sea of people,” CEO John Groh said. “It was great to see the crowds back.”
This marks the 10th year for Stroll on State, which transforms downtown streets into a winter wonderland complete with ice skating, festive foods, holiday shopping, music, movies, children’s games and other activities.
“Stroll on State is one of the shining examples of what Rockford is,” Groh said. “The community comes together. Everybody’s having a great time, and downtown is kind of magical in these seven hours.”
The festivities started at noon with the 5K Dasher Dash, and Groh said there were 815 runners. It’s a fitting total given Rockford’s affinity for celebrating its primary area code of 8-1-5.
The rest of the event kicked off with the parade at 2 p.m. and wrapped up with a fireworks display off the Jefferson Street bridge just before the 9 p.m. closing time.
The Davies had the honor of serving as grand marshal after donating their massive blue spruce to serve as the city’s official Christmas tree. Thousands of people swarmed Elm and Main streets at 6 p.m. to watch the 40-foot tall fully decorated tree get illuminated. People filled the steps of the BMO Center, parking garages and the ground level to watch the tree-lighting ceremony, which concluded with a few fireworks.
“It was wonderful to see so many people out on the streets. It was just awe-inspiring,” Carol Davies said. “It just makes me feel so happy to see so many people gather and be happy and be friendly and enjoy the city.”
It was a bittersweet moment for the Davies, who are retired educators from Boylan Catholic High School. They’re still stinging from the void left in their yard where the tree once stood, but it had outgrown their property and they saw donating it as a good way to spread the joy it had given them.
“It was sad when it disappeared. Then we saw it in the park there and it was beautiful, and we thought: this is going to bring joy to so many people,” Carol Davies said. “It goes to a good cause.”
Businesses up and down State Street and other downtown blocks were brimming with customers for much of Stroll. Jarrod Hennis, the owner of Rockford Art Deli, said the event helps generate support for local business and is an even bigger day for sales than Black Friday.
“It’s cool seeing all these families bring down their kids as they grow, and getting photos with Santa, and just watching the cheer of Christmas with everyone,” Hennis said.
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Felicia Spears of Rockford came downtown with her grandchildren. She said she enjoys the shopping and seeing the crowds of people in good cheer.
“It kicks off the holiday spirit,” she said. “I bring my family out every year.”
She was dressed in festive jewelry, bedazzled glasses and a holiday-themed hat.
“I’m trying to take a picture at every selfie station they have,” she said.
Mayor Tom McNamara said Stroll on State is a time for everyone to come together and celebrate.
“Stroll is just an amazing event where everyone can come and gather, and we’re all just one community for these seven hours,” McNamara said. “It’s really special.”