NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The night air is crisp and the leaves are changing colors, both signs of fall. In many college towns across America, the changing leaves also signal the beginning of football season and one of the most important weekends of the year for students, alumni, residents and small businesses in town: Homecoming.
Oklahoma State University in Stillwater boasts one of the largest homecoming celebrations in the country, according to Chase Carter, director of communications for the OSU Alumni Association. The festivities, which begin a week before the big Saturday game, include campus competitions, a harvest carnival and chili cook-off, street painting and parties and culminate on the Friday night before the game with a "Walkaround" in which hundreds of thousands of people walk a 10-block area to see the Greek houses elaborately decorated. Carter says it is the Walkaround that really draws the crowds, bringing in an estimated 80,000 people last year. That is pretty amazing, given the football stadium only holds 60,000 people, he says. The stadium is a sign of just how big the business of college football has become: Once known as Lewis Field for an education pioneer at the university, it is now branded Boone Pickens Stadium for corporate raider, oil and gas entrepreneur, and OSU alum T. Boone Pickens, who donated $165 million to the university. Homecoming at OSU, which has been held since 1913 has grown progressively since the alumni association took over in the 1920s, says Carter. The town of 50,000 -- 25,000 of whom are students -- prepares for this one big weekend in October (this year homecoming will be held on Oct. 19-20 when OSU plays Iowa State) all year. About 250 students participate directly on committees and Carter says that the alumni association spends about $200,000 on homecoming festivities each year, which includes a stipend to each Greek house to decorate for Walkaround. Most of the alumni money currently is raised through fees, although some restaurants in town donate a portion of their sales the week of homecoming to help offset costs. Carter says that about 15 eateries participated last year. The return on investment for the town and its business owners includes more than just getting to meet up with some of the 245,000 alumni each year. The Stillwater Chamber of Commerce estimates that an average of $80 is spent by each visitor in the town during homecoming weekend.
Tanner Wamsley, manager of the Wooden Nickel, a specialty clothing store next to campus, says the store starts preparing for homecoming weekend during the spring ordering season. "We order a lot of our name brands in orange and if they don't sell it in orange, we ask them to make it," says Wamsley. "We offer a lot of one-of-a-kind items." Wamsley says that she estimates business increases by 40% during homecoming and all of the dozen employees are required to work throughout the weekend. "We get a lot of alumni, former employees, people who knew the store when they went to school coming back," says Wamsley of the Wooden Nickel, which has been in business since 1976. In addition to tourists shopping, money is being spent mostly locally on decorations for the Greek houses and the 100+ parade floats that participate in the pre-game parade on Saturday. Admission to the Harvest Carnival is also a canned food charity event, with the "admission" then donated to Harvest II, a local food pantry. Carter says 10,300 pounds of food were donated in 2010, which accounted for one-fourth of their food donations for the entire year. "Of course, the hotels are booked months in advance and the restaurants and bars are also busy," says Carter. Brian Saliba, owner of Freddie Pauls Steakhouse, is an OSU alum, but that isn't the only reason he looks forward to homecoming each year. "It brings the town closer together and gets everyone excited about OSU and a lot of money also flows that weekend," says Saliba. "I wish every other weekend were homecoming." Saliba says his business increases by an estimated 22% over homecoming weekend including both the restaurant and catering, and all 50 of his employees are expected to be available to work. "It just keeps getting bigger and better every year," says Saliba. Carter says the alumni association is currently in the midst of a $1 billion endowment drive, $4 million of which will be used to benefit future homecoming celebrations. They've raised $910 million so far. The school has been recognized for having "America's Greatest Homecoming Celebration" from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. "We just want to make sure we can continue the tradition," says Carter. --By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell Follow TheStreet on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.