Storybook Holiday Creates Magic for Frostburg Business Community

The story about Frostburg State’s economic impact on the community needs to be told. It’s something that’s said in the community about how FSU benefits the community through spending, but it’s important to show that it’s not just from its employees spending money. The university has many programs it provides and produces for the community, creating sales spurred by tourism. Storybook Holiday is just one of many events that you can see how much FSU helps the area.

Originally published: 12/13/2016

When Storybook Holiday is unwrapped each December in Frostburg, it’s a gift that keeps on giving for downtown businesses.storybook

The event, coordinated by Frostburg State University’s Children’s Literature Centre, completed its 13th year where an event that inspires reading for children also inspires purchases in local shops and brings out a festive spirit from merchants to make the event successful.

“One of the biggest reasons that CLC Director Bill Bingman and I started this was to get people to come and see why we love this town so much,” said Dr. Barbara Ornstein, associate director of the Children’s Literature Centre. “It’s such a great place for kids but we wanted them to see our little shops, good places and great restaurants.”

Storybook Shopping

Main Street Books is one of the busiest businesses during the event, thanks to the literacy theme. Owner Fred Powell says children and their parents flood the store for a solid three hours, buying up children’s books during the day. The day is his second busiest Saturday of the year behind Small Business Saturday.

“This is the benchmark for the holiday season in Frostburg,” Powell said.

More than 2,000 people – about 700 children and their families – show up to the annual celebration that is tied in to a winter-themed book selected by the Children’s Literature Centre, and includes a visit and interaction with the author or illustrator. Powell credits the more than 250 student and alumni volunteers in making the event so large and successful.

“It wouldn’t have happened without all of these people to do it,” Powell added.

Ornstein and Bingman knew that part of the event’s success means getting the kids to go into the stores with their parents, so they developed a bookmark in which participating businesses give out holiday stickers to fill up the bookmark. After five stickers, children can show their bookmarks to Grammy’s Attic, Lorenzo’s Bakery and McFarland Candies to receive a free treat.

“Even if they don’t buy anything then, they go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this existed,’” Ornstein said.

This year, 22 businesses participated as sticker stops and at least 35 businesses donated space or supplies, FrostburgFirst Main Street Manager Jessica Palumbo said.

“It brings a whole new level to the meaning of community that they’re so involved,” said Palumbo, an FSU alumnus.

Community Spirit

The day is not just about sales and exposure, as some businesses donate supplies or food or use their space to make the event successful. Armstrong Insurance Agency closes its office for the Saturday event so the building can serve as elf headquarters for the volunteers. FSU Educational Professions instructor Sarah O’Neal coordinates with local elementary schools to decorate storefronts for the season. She has decorated Main Street Books’ storefront for the last 11 years. Volunteer groups make wreaths for the city’s lamp posts, too.

“Thousands of cars drive through here each week, and what a sight to drive through and what a statement to make to have pretty much every business you see as you come through town with their windows decorated,” Palumbo said.

P.S. Hair Designs certainly makes a statement, transforming Peggy Atkinson’s salon into Santa’s House.

Atkinson works up until noon the day before the event, then takes all of her retail products off the shelves and shoves anything that looks like it belongs in a salon into her storage room. All Friday night, her family and friends transform her business into the North Pole. Outside, she has wooden panels painted like Santa’s House, swallowing her storefront.

“I never dreamed when we started this that it would be this magical,” said Atkinson, who goes by Momma Frost during Storybook Holiday. (Her son, Rick Stevenson ’04, volunteered at Storybook Holiday when he was an education major at FSU and has been involved ever since. He has portrayed Jack Frost for many years now.)

Atkinson knows she won’t make a dime on Storybook Holiday, but every smile she sees on kids’ faces is worth it.

“I don’t even do it thinking somebody will come back,” she said. “I do it because we love Storybook Holiday.”

The sparkling atmosphere of Storybook Holiday continues inside City Place, where educational professions majors make snowflakes to hang from the ceiling and other student volunteers acting as Santa’s helpers run activities. Back on Main Street, before the parade begins, students from Mountain City Center for the Arts sing holiday tunes to preview the troupe’s annual Christmastime shows.

“Everywhere you look there’s some reminder that it’s winter and the holidays are coming,” Ornstein said. “Storybook Holiday turns Frostburg into a little winter wonderland.”

Storybook Holiday sponsors also include the city of Frostburg, FrostburgFirst and PNC Bank.

Tourist Elves

The love for the holiday event is turning into a driver for tourism, too. Dorothea Lay and her daughter Toni Lay, 14, of Bethesda, drove up to Frostburg with Toni’s childhood friend Meredith Blanchard, 13, who came from Connecticut. Toni remembered how much she loved the event when they were 5 years old and invited her friend Meredith to help celebrate Toni’s 14th birthday.

“Everyone in Frostburg is so into it, which I love,” Toni said.

The girls fully embraced Storybook Holiday by dressing as elves, helping to hand out bookmarks while walking in the parade and winning the people’s choice award for their lemon bar cookies (dubbed “So a Lemon Walked Into a Bar”) in the cookie contest.

As much as Meredith and Toni enjoyed the event, they got a bigger thrill making the littler kids smile at their elf outfits.

“One little kid came up to me and asked me if I was a real elf,” Toni said. “It was fun seeing all the little kids be so excited about everything.”

It was as if they were keeping an eye on all the little ones for Santa.

“If you gave them a wink, they whispered to their parents, ‘Oh my gosh, the elves just winked at me!’” Meredith said. “It was pretty neat to see them do what I would have done when I was really little.”

Part of why Meredith and Toni could still enjoy Storybook Holiday is because the event has grown to a full-day festival that’s great for all ages. Powell is encouraged by the buy-in of everyone involved with Storybook Holiday, seeing it grow from an event attended by a hundred people to well over 2,000.

“Everybody’s been touched by some sort of success by it,” Powell said. “If nothing else, it just makes you feel good.”

For more information about the Children’s Literature Centre, call 301-687-3133 or visit

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit or Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.



Hagerstown Holiday Inn Express Expanding

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Md. — The Holiday Inn Express  & Suites off Interstate 81 in Halfway is hoping to add more rooms, according to a building permit application.

Holiday Inn Express, 241 Railway Lane, is applying to build a three-story addition to add 24 guest rooms, a first-floor vestibule, maintenance and housekeeping rooms plus a new staircase to serve the rooms. The application was filed with Washington County Permits and Inspections on June 13.

The hotel, opened in 2001, is on land owned by The Bowman Group and currently has 83 rooms.

That corner of Railway Lane is going to be active if the expansion goes through. As first reported here, a Chili’s Bar and Grill is planned next door.

— By Charles Schelle | @ImYourChuck

When Reporting Feels Like Speed Dating

Sometimes gathering content for public relations purposes can be as if not more hectic than reporting.

You’re going to hear about one of those.

Every spring, FSU has an undergraduate and a separate graduate research symposium to show off students’ in-depth projects. Our office hears about several of the research projects during the academic year and writes about them, but others fall through the cracks or the projects are just coming to a point of being reportable.

A couple weeks before, we receive a print-out of a the program with abstracts, student names and advisors. A co-worker and I sift through the program and divvy up who’s going where. Students are set up in a assembly hall with poster presentations, so it’s a lot like going to a conference or a networking event, or yes, speed dating.

Continue reading When Reporting Feels Like Speed Dating

Power Boat Exclusive

After tearing through public records about IMG Academy and other tourism initiatives, the lead tourism folks for the county decided to bring an exclusive to me about a major event planned for Bradenton.

It showed they trusted me and that I could do a thorough job. And sure, they wanted to have more control over the story…and they were asking my publisher for sponsorship money.

Still, it turned out to be a nice get. And the event itself was a success during its first year. A few minor hiccups with food, access and beer, but plenty of people turned out.

The one thing I regret not doing in my reporting was calling people in Pittsburgh about this event not associated with it. After I left the paper, I found out that the company that was bringing the festival to Bradenton, ISM-USA, lost the contract for the Pittsburgh event the following year as the city wanted to have someone new at the helm.

Not major but it would explain some of the motivation.

As the year progressed, I would cover minor updates from tourism council meetings and the urban affairs reporter would focus on the city issues from both Palmetto and Bradenton as this became more of a municipal story until the event itself.

Continue reading Power Boat Exclusive

Hotel Revitalization in Bradenton, Florida

Downtown Bradenton had an eyesore of a building that was once the most prominent in its skyline.

Whatever you called it, the pink building some folks contend wasn’t pink in the first place was being revived into an elegant Hampton Inn. Yes, that does sound weird. But the attention to detail in restoring and preserving an 87-year-old building and turning it into a modern hotel is quite the accomplishment.

I was fortunate to cover the lead-up to the hotel’s opening and help document some history, as well as share some ghost stories:

Continue reading Hotel Revitalization in Bradenton, Florida

How A Florida Airport Wrestles With Identity

The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport was probably one of the more drama-free beats I had. It’s not to say there wasn’t controversy. We’ll get to that in a minute.

The small-hub airport, which goes by its FAA code SRQ, became debt-free, paying off its mortgage. It renovated its concourse and baggage areas, and continues construction today around its parking lot and infield. A new FAA control tower is being built, too.

But it always had a chip on its shoulder as it competed with a behometh to the north, Tampa International. To a lesser extent, St. Pete-Clearwater Airport, too. And to the south, there’s Fort Myers’ and Punta Gorda’s airports nibbling away.

It became problematic in 2012 when Southwest was ready to phase out AirTran. SRQ was among the first airports for Southwest to pull AirTran from, taking away one-third of the airport’s business.

The airport positioned itself well playing the victim, but then I found out that they were talking to Southwest about the possibility of some type of return as they all but bashed the airline publicly.

Since then, the airport did two large identity campaigns as well as battling a perception that SRQ is more expensive than Tampa. That’s still up for debate depending on which routes you look at for ticket prices, but there are also parking fees and gas and tolls to consider.

Looking at the numbers, the airport was able to mostly recover. But it didn’t mean it restored all routes. Most notably, a route to Baltimore (and nearly Washington, too) wasn’t restored. That’s awfully difficult to get Marylanders down to Sarasota for Orioles spring training at Ed Smith Park. But not any more difficult considering the official airlines of the Orioles is…Southwest.

Anyway, here is a collection from my time covering SRQ:

Continue reading How A Florida Airport Wrestles With Identity

Boating Bandwagon at Benderson Park

During my time at both Sarasota Patch and the Bradenton Herald, I got to learn about the merits of sculling, rowing and whatever other boat-related sport you can have.

The development of what became Nathan Benderson Park into a world caliber venue for aquatic sports—namely sculling and rowing—was a fun journey. It wasn’t without its controversy considering the costs, and it still is and probably will be after the World Rowing Championships finally come to the border of Sarasota and Manatee counties in 2018.

Here’s the downlow on how this all came to be in as much as I can reduce it before you dig into my clips:

-A few folks noticed how perfectly rectangle a old borrow pit that became a lake was and thought, huh, this would be cool to use for rowing.

-These folks talked to Nathan Benderson, the founder of powerful Benderson Development Company, about getting behind this cause. The man, who would ride his bike around this park up until the day he died, was convinced. They just needed to convince Sarasota County.

-The county said sure, they took the money from Benderson after talking to rowing officials that this could work. Benderson also saw how nice it would be considering how much land owns for retail sits just north of it. The lake was expanded for regulation racing over a period of time. A road was expanded and connected for better access.

-Donations were hard to come by through fundraising so the local rowing officials kept asking the State of Florida for millions of dollars to help finish the park and the buildings needed for the championships. (This is still happening in 2016.)

-In 2013, the park was awarded the 2017 World Rowing Championship plus additional events. Construction of the park still has not finished, but some main components are in place.

Continue reading Boating Bandwagon at Benderson Park

Major League Soccer Pre-Season Series

2014 Third-place Travel Writing, Class A-B, Florida Press Club, “Major League Soccer chooses IMG Academy as pre-season hub” series

While checking emails of public officials, I stumbled upon some information about a mega sports-tourism initiative in Manatee County. After FOIAs and interviews, I was able to get an exclusive, beating national outlets, that Major League Soccer would choose IMG Academy as its East Coast hub for the pre-season. This was a similar approach to how teams use Tucson, Ariz., as a West Coast hub.

MLS could never develop a true spring training set-up like baseball just because how soccer teams train. So, even while IMG received the hub designation, they would still train in other cities before and after their stop in Bradenton. The concept evolved in the second year with a pre-season tournament.

The award is in one of the toughest categories to win in a Florida press contest—tourism. And that it competed against entries in Class A (Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, et. al), demonstrated that judges saw something worthwhile.

Here are each of the stories in the series:

Continue reading Major League Soccer Pre-Season Series