To many in West Tennessee, the Ned McWherter Agricultural Complex, on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Martin, is an indoor agriculture mecca.
For the past 14 years, for four days each December, the complex turns into a winter holiday playground for people of all ages. For that four-day period the complex dons a new name – Santa-s Village – and takes on a new purpose – to serve as a collection center for food and toys for service agencies in Northwest Tennessee.
The 15th annual Santa-s Village opens at 6:15 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 9, with a special tree lighting ceremony and runs through 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12. Hours of operation are from 6-9 p.m., Dec. 9 and 10; 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 11; and from 1-5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12.
This year-s Santa Village will have plenty of activities for children as well as an arts and crafts fair with more than 50 exhibitors on the complex-s mezzanine level.
-We want the focus of this year-s Santa-s Village to be on activities for children instead of the enchanted forest,- said Dennis Suiter, director of Martin Parks and Recreation.
Among the attractions for the children are pony rides, a petting farm, the arctic avalanche slide, a new elephant carousel ride and MTD-s model train display.
Among the attractions for visitors of all ages are the enchanted forest with animated life-size figures and thousands of sparkling lights. The forest path leads to Santa-s Place where Santa Claus himself will greet everyone. Santa-s Place includes Santa-s holiday sleigh where children can sit with Santa and have their picture made.The water pond with a running stream and a foot bridge returns, along with the debut of an eight-foot water fall.
Complementing the plethora of activities and attractions is a line-up of non-stop entertainment from various local talents on the main arena stage.
Admission is free, but visitors are encouraged to bring $5 worth of non-perishable food items or usable toys for seven service agencies that will distribute them to those less fortunate during the holiday season.
-It is amazing that a community this size and a university of our size can come together to help those less fortunate in a nine-county area with an event of this magnitude,- said Dr. Rodney Thomsen, director of the Ned McWherter Agricultural Complex.
This year the food and toys collected at Santa-s Village will be divided among: Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council; We Care Ministries, Inc.; Chimes for Charity; Young Men-s Business Club (YMBC); Union City Jaycees; UT Martin-s Infant Stimulation; UT Martin-s Healthy Start; and the Obion County Red Cross.
The service agencies provided food and toys for about 2,000 families in West Tennessee last year, Suiter said. In the 14-year history, Santa-s Village has generated about $288,672 in donations, and 98, 583 people visited the winter wonderland.
-It-s heart-warming to know that people in this area can reach out and help others,- Thomsen said. -With the community-s help this year, we should surpass the $300,000 mark in the value of donations, and more than 100,000 people will have come through the door at Santa-s Village to get in the Christmas spirit.-
Santa-s Village set an attendance record three years ago when more than 11,000 people visited the complex. Suiter anticipates about 10,000 people will attend this year-s event.
-I think the university and the community that-s involved in this project deserve a pat on the back for staging a significant event like this to end the millennium. I think this is truly remarkable,- Thomsen said.