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Lee expands holiday showcase

LEESBURG -- For the past 20 years, citizens here have settled into this tiny community by the hundreds to watch its annual Christmas parade. With nothing to keep them in town, shortly after the parade most headed for home.

That will change Saturday when Leesburg is home to the first Spirit of Christmas Parade and Festival, an all-day extravaganza planned to keep attendees in town from early morning to late at night.

"The festival was planned around a day of family-oriented activities," said Lisa Davis, director of marketing/membership for the Lee County Chamber of Commerce and one of the festival's organizers. "We started putting everything together this summer, and the response has been great.

"We're hoping this will become an annual event, but that's going to depend on participation (by the public). We've got the vendors and we've got the sponsors. Now we need for people to show up."

The Spirit of Christmas parade grew into an all-day event when parade planners met with Leesburg Police Sgt. James Vick, who had encouraged community leaders to consider a "Deer Days" festival.

"We kept trying to come up with a date for the Deer Days festival, and it just never worked out," Lesley Barbosa, the Lee Chamber's director of operations, said. "Finally, we just decided to add the community event to the parade."

The group of organizers, which also includes City Clerk Casey Moore, YMCA official and City Councilwoman Judy Powell, Library Director Claire Leavy, Jeremy Morey with Lee Parks and Recreation, and Patsy Shirley with Lee County Family Connection, had no trouble getting local officials and agencies on board.

"It truly became a communitywide project," Moore said. "The city, county, school system, YMCA, local churches ... everyone got involved. Logistically, there really were few problems. Sgt. Vick took care of traffic for the parade route, and local churches said we could allow parking at their facilities.

"We've always had a great response to our Christmas parade, so we're anxious to see what the response will be to an all-day festival. We tried to plan a little something for everyone."

Sandwiched between the 10 a.m. parade, which already has more than 100 entrants and runs a roughly 1-mile route from Lee County High School on State Highway 32 past the Lee Courthouse on Fourth and Main streets, and the 6:30 p.m. movie under the stars, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," will be plenty for everyone.

By Monday, 45 vendors had signed up to sell their wares (applications will be accepted through Friday; call the Chamber at (229) 759-2422), and everything from Christmas wreaths, gift baskets and ornaments, jewelry, candles, ironworks, toys, hand-made goods, event T-shirts and food items will be available.

"We have actually turned food vendors away," Davis said. "We didn't want so many that the ones who were here couldn't make money, so we cut off the number at 10. We want to do everything we can to encourage our vendors to come back."

Also scheduled between the parade and movie are musical, dance and acting performances by various groups, strorytelling, a gingerbread house contest, pictures with Santa (from noon-2 p.m.), cakewalks and other events. First United Methodist Church at 117 Starksville Ave. will also presnt a live nativity scene starting at 7 p.m.

"Our community is getting excited about the festival," Barbosa said. "Some of the businesses downtown have decorated their establishments, and we've got banners up welcoming everyone to the city.

"And we want to welcome everyone. Certainly the people in Lee County are excited about the parade and festival, but we want people in Dougherty and Sumter and other surrounding counties to know they're welcome, too."