Future of downtown garlands in question

Since 1925, fresh garlands featuring lighted bells and stars have adorned downtown New Ulm during the Christmas holiday season. Cables are used to hang the garlands.

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt

Since 1925, fresh garlands featuring lighted bells and stars have adorned downtown New Ulm during the Christmas holiday season. Cables are used to hang the garlands. Staff photo by Clay Schuldt

NEW ULM — A special meeting was held for downtown property and business owners at City Hall Wednesday morning to seek input on the holiday garland decorations.

Since 1925, fresh garlands featuring lighted bells and stars have adorned downtown New Ulm during the holiday season. The decorations continue to be popular with New Ulm citizens and tourists, but last year the decorations resulted in a fire at the River Bend business. The electrical cable rubbed against the connecting cable causing an electrical arch and resulting in a fire.

“We are so lucky someone caught that fire in its infancy,” City Manager Brian Gramentz said. “Had it been 1 a.m., who knows how many building could have burned down.”

This year a ground fault circuit (GFI) was placed on all holiday lights to prevent this from happening again, but this incident sparked a conversation with the city and Chamber of Commerce about the future of the garlands.

After an initial review of the issues, Gramentz felt a special meeting was needed to seek input and advice from downtown stakeholders.

“There are a lot of issues to consider, and last year’s incident heightened the urgency,” Chamber of Commerce President Audra Shaneman said.

Gramentz opened the meeting with background on the holiday decorations. The garlands and other decorations are put up each year by the city and Public Utilities, but the decorations belong to the New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We do not own the Christmas decorations, yet we take on all the liability,” Gramentz said. “When a cable breaks and that center piece comes down and hits a car, the city pays.”

Shaneman confirmed the end of a garland did fall this year during the Parade of Lights.

In addition, the city has no easement for the cables used to hang the garlands which span downtown Minnesota Street.

“Way back when someone said, ‘go ahead hang them on my building, I don’t care,'” Gramentz said. “Through time, that has just evolved. In today’s world we probably need easements for those cables.”

After last year’s fire, the affected property owner was unaware the cable was attached to their building and had never approved the anchor attachment. The cable was in place before the purchase of the property, but no easement gave the city or chamber continual permission to hang garlands from the building.

Initially the city looked for ways to mitigate the need to attach the garlands to buildings and limit liability, but no alternative option has been presented.

Gramentz said some of the cables have been in place for years and realistically should be replaced. He also recommended someone review the connections to confirm the buildings can support the cables and decorations.

Many buildings in downtown New Ulm have a parapet roof and cannot support the cables. The parapet is a low protective wall along the edge of a roof. Some of these parapets are in need of maintenance and can’t support a cable.

The anchor holding the cable to the parapet could fall causing a garland to crash into the street, or a the cable could pull the entire parapet off the roof and send bricks tumbling down on the sidewalk.

City Council member and former building official David Christian said two parapets in downtown New Ulm have collapsed in the past without the extra stress of connecting cables. Christian said it was only a matter of time before one of the guide cables is responsible for a falling parapet and the city will be liable for injuries.

It was suggested an analysis of the buildings will need to be done before connecting garlands and the owners must take on the liability.

Christina Schwab, owner of Inspired, said she was not comfortable keeping the garland connection and incurring additional expenses for the sake of nostalgia.

Another solution was to use lighter weight holiday decorations. Artificial garlands would weigh less and would not need to be replaced every year.

Yvonne Weber who attended the meeting encouraged the city and downtown community to explore options to maintain the decorations as a major holiday attraction.

“If there are funds that need to be raised, I think there would be community support for it,” Weber said.

Gramentz agreed that there were many options, but said the city needed to limit the city’s liability.

No changes will be made to the decorations this year, but this city and chamber are hoping to have a plan in place by October 2018.

Shaneman said the chamber will pick up the discussion moving forward and investigate further options.

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