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Smaller crowds, but more Spirit of Halloweentown visitors coming to city, say organizers

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Actors from the 1998 Disney Channel film Halloweentown attend a pumpkin lighting ceremony during the Spirit of Halloweentown festivities in St. Helens on Oct. 13. The event drew a modestly sized crowd of around 1,000 people.Spirit of Halloweentown festivities are in full swing and last Saturday's pumpkin-lighting ceremony, involving cast members from the original 1998 Disney Channel film "Halloweentown," has often been viewed as the big event of the month.

A crowd of roughly 1,000 people gathered in Columbia Courthouse Plaza to see a host of actors give brief speeches and remarks on the 20th anniversary of the movie's release. Robin Thomas, who played "Kalabar," and Michele Marina, who played the "Pincushion Secretary," attended for the first time this year, while Kimberly Brown, Judith Hoag, Joey Zimmerman, Emily Roeske and Judith Ford were return guests for the pumpkin lighting ceremony.

"The past cast weekend went well and we had extremely positive reviews of the way we were able to broadcast to the world with the new stage, lighting and sound involved," St. Helens contracted event planner Tina Curry stated in an email to the Spotlight. "We had a number of news organizations that covered the cast. We had hundreds of shares, thousands of clicks and high social media numbers covering and watching."SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Actors from the Halloweentown movie Robin Thomas and Emily Roeske greet each other on stage during the Oct. 13 pumpkin lighting ceremony.

Last weekend's festivities collectively attracted a crowd size that nearly matched last year's for the single celebrity pumpkin-lighting event, though there was a decrease in turnout just for the Saturday night pumpkin lighting. Curry noted a change in crowd structure was expected and intended.

"The reason for the 'crowd' size is that we intended to spread the crowd out by having pumpkin lighting every weekend — it is working. If we based it on sales of businesses that have the ability to track sales we are about 42% up right now for the season," Curry explained in an email to the Spotlight. "Our opening weekend was extremely busy compared to last year. We had more people in town in the evening on the first weekend vs. the second."

St. Helens Police Chief Brian Greenway estimated 2,000 people gathered at the peak of the Saturday, Oct. 13, event, while Curry noted close to 15,000 people have come through the city over the first two weekends in October.

In 2015, the first year Brown attended, Columbia River Fire and Rescue estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people came through St. Helens on one day, with 5,000 people packed into the plaza square and the city's downtown core. Crowd sizes have since decreased each year, even with the addition of more actors from the film.

Fans of the film continue to be attracted to the event, however, as are those interested in the city's Halloween-themed festivities — including visitors from across the country. A map marked with straight pins in the plaza square indicates where visitors have traveled from.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - A crowd gathers around a stage where 'Halloweentown' actors greet visitors during a ceremonial pumpkin lighting in the Columbia County Courthouse Plaza.By appearance, opening weekend, which included a community parade, was strong.

St. Helens City Administrator John Walsh said more people seem to be coming throughout the day to attend a variety of events, not just the traditional pumpkin lighting ceremony.

"Overall the festival is going well and we continue to add things to make the guest experience better. The car show is coming this weekend — which is an addition from another group of enthusiasts. We're looking forward to the Grimm Cast that is coming this weekend as well and people seem to be excited to see them," Curry noted in an email to the Spotlight.

As late as mid-September, Brown, the actor who played teen witch "Marnie" in the film, was slated not to attend the annual event. According to email records, Curry and Brown's talent agency, Gemstone Talent, couldn't reach an agreement for greater financial compensation being requested by the agency. Afterward, Craig Marquardo, a Scappoose resident, helped renegotiate a contract to secure Brown's appearance.

With confirmation of Brown's appearance confirmed so close to the celebrity pumpkin lighting ceremony, several event-goers earlier Saturday said it was unclear to them if "Marnie" would attend, and some outdated online agenda materials omitted Brown's involvement.

Social media sites reflected commenters' observations about the lower turnout Saturday, including comments the plaza square grew quiet fairly early in the evening.

Walsh explained that from the city's perspective, a fluctuation in numbers isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"The objective is to get the most tourism we can without creating this surge of people that's difficult to manage," Walsh said.

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