Number of local Christmas tree lots dwindles

If you set out to buy a real Christmas tree today, you won’t find as many tree lots as you used to. Competition from stores that carry the same inventory for less money, combined with the demand on volunteers who sell the trees, have caused some schools, churches and nonprofits to close their lots in recent years.

“Every year we saw our profits drop,” said Brad Fitts, who sold trees with the Downtown Y Men’s Club for years until 2006. Only one Y men’s club still sells trees — the east-side one, at Normandie Center at Central and Woodlawn.

It’s been the pruning of a long tradition. The YMCA had its first Christmas tree lot back in 1949, selling 1,300 trees for $1 apiece, said Megan Sterrett of the Y. As the Y grew branches, its men’s clubs started selling Christmas trees in various locations. Some years the clubs donated as much as $35,000 to the Y from the tree lots. Last year, the East Y Men’s Club raised $5,000, just 10 percent of what it donates annually to the Y’s Strong Kids campaign. When retail stores first started competing with the nonprofit Christmas tree lots, the stores were selling only Scotch pines, Fitts said. The tree lots offered types that didn’t grow in Kansas, such as Fraser and Douglas firs. Now, Fitts says, “any tree you want you can buy at a considerable discount” at a store.

“Even though we had no labor expense,” Fitts said, “for as much time as we were spending out there it didn’t make sense.”

The groups that used to raise money through Christmas tree sales now turn to other means — the Boy Scouts to popcorn, for example.

But some longtime Christmas tree lots are persevering, and at least one new lot sprang up last year.

“It’s pretty important to our group,” said Brian McCosh of the Knights of Columbus Council 4118, which has been selling trees since the 1950s. Its lot is at West 13th and Mount Carmel.

“There was a couple years ago when we thought of not doing it. A lot of groups took a hit,” McCosh said. But things have evened out since then — partly because of some of the other lots closing — and “we seem to have a pretty good core base that keeps coming back to us every year. They like the fact that they can get a tree and that it’s not for profit, that it all goes to various charitable organizations.”

Holy Cross Lutheran Church at 600 N. Greenwich decided to open a Christmas tree lot for the first time last year and, even though the lot only broke even, the congregation decided to have it again this year.

“There’s not too many tree lots real close and there’s kind of a void, so we thought maybe this would be a good neighborhood thing to do,” said Kent Hoyer, business manager of the church.

“The thing that surprised us last year was even though the economy was really bad, it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t terrible. We broke even. What a blessing. A lot of other good things happened as a result.”

Camaraderie is one of them, Hoyer said. Volunteers who work with the Christmas trees find themselves bundling up around fires, playing cards and tossing footballs while waiting for customers.

“It’s a good time for the guys,” said Brendan O’Bryhim, head of the Y Men’s Club lot.

The lots also are finding ways to stay current and offer extra perks. The Y lot will accept credit cards for the first time this year. The Blessed Sacrament Men’s Club lot in College Hill offers free delivery and, for a $5 donation, the Boy Scouts pick up the trees for recycling on Jan. 8. Holy Cross is throwing in a free box of custom-made Christmas cards with the purchase of a tree.

O’Bryhim sees a future for the last standing Y Christmas tree lot.

“As long as we can clear a profit for the Strong Kids, there’s enough people I think enjoy it and it’s good visibility for the club and for the Strong Kids,” he said. “I don’t think people will stop buying real Christmas trees, and I think the Y’s presence in Wichita being what it isæ.æ.æ. it’s a self-sustaining thing in some ways because of our loyal Y members.”

And a glad tiding: O’Bryhim says the price of trees hasn’t gone up this year.

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