Dropping ping-pong balls

During Small Business Saturday last year, Roman Bloemke and Brian Renner tipped a box of ping-pong balls on the crowd below. This year, a couple hundred balls have been prepared for the celebration, each with a number and corresponding envelopes that contain prizes associated with local small businesses.

When the stuffing is stuffed away, the turkey is in the fridge and the cranberry sauce is off the table this Thanksgiving, many minds will turn to the next day, or even that very midnight. But instead of tackling your Christmas list on Black Friday, the Hutchinson Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism invites shoppers to put some of it off one extra day and think local.

"There are great local, small business options run by our neighbors, our families, our friends," said Mary Hodson, Chamber president. "It's not that we don't love our big stores, it's just a way to remind people of everything we have."

Small Business Saturday, which falls on Nov. 30 this year, started in 2020. Beginning last year, the Chamber launched a local celebration. That celebration returns this year, starting downtown with a ping pong ball drop similar to what was seen last year.

"It's a couple hundred balls. We have some for kids and some for adults," Hodson said. "They are numbered, so when we drop them and people collect a ball and turn it in, there is an envelope that corresponds with that ball. In the envelopes are gift cards, gift certificates, tokens for different businesses — all sorts of prizes."

The ball drop is 10 a.m. on Washington Avenue, which will be blocked off between Main Street and Hassan Street. Hodson encourages anyone who wants to participate to be there right away.

"You want to be there right at 10 a.m., ready to go," she said. "We do the little kids first, so that's (age) 12 and under, and then we get them out of the way. And then we do the adult ball drop."

Last year a scissor lift was used to drop the balls. This year a boom truck will bring the balls even higher.

Between the Chamber, the Hutchinson Ambassadors and contributions from local businesses, $4,000 in prizes has been raised for Small Business Saturday. Part of that money is used for the ball drop prizes, but another share will be used by the Chamber's "elves." Dressed in red, the elves will travel around Hutchinson to surprise shoppers with gifts at local businesses. They're wary of those who may try to follow them.

"We've had people who were out and about with family who couldn't buy anything, but they were able to because of this," Hodson said. "We have connected with families, with people who lost a loved one to cancer, who are just trying to get through the holiday. This is a way to uplift them and give a little holiday cheer. I love it."

Even those who aren't on the receiving end of any gifts or prizes seem to love watching as others receive something, and enjoy an early taste of the holiday spirit. Others who are selected for a prize try to pass it on.

"We have had people tell us, 'No, I know what you are doing, but I'd rather you give it to someone else.' People are so generous when it comes to that," Hodson said. "We have a lot of volunteers who make sure they plan their holiday around this to be part of it."

Hodson sees the event as another way to bring people into Hutchinson from elsewhere, which fulfills the Chamber's tourism role as well.

"We have a lot of people who come to Hutchinson for Small Business Saturday," she said. "Our businesses are grouped together well. We have good retail clusters and it's easy to get around town."

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