Officials say holiday light costs are worth it

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 102 views 

This marks the 20th year for the Lights of the Ozarks display on the downtown Fayetteville Square and it comes with an $80,000 price tag.

The more than 450,000 festive light display is a joint operation between Advertising and Promotion Commission and Parks and Recreation. The A&P purchases the lights and Parks and Recreation is in charge of designing and installation of the lights.

Fayetteville A&P Executive Director Marilyn Heifner said cutting the $80,000 cost is always a concern.

“All the lights are LED and the Parks department has become more streamlined in installing the lights,” said Heifner.

More than 20 parks employees begin the installation the second week in October laying down power strips and finish with the last bulb the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

“It’s a good time for the (park) employees to be doing this kind of work,” said Heifner, “Because there’s no grass to be mowed.”

She estimates more than 600,000 people will visit the downtown square and the goal is to have those people spend money in the nearby restaurants, hotels and stores. Nearly $200,000 could be collected in taxes for the month of December.

The idea of the Lights of the Ozarks as a revenue-builder started 20 years ago with George Smith.

“He moved here in 1993 and had come from Marshall, Texas," Heifner explained, “That city had a huge display and he had knowledge on how to put up lights.”

She said they’ve learned a lot since those early days on the square.

The most recent additions have been camel rides, which were added five years ago and three years ago the University of Arkansas hospitality events students helped in planning the festivities.

Up to 30 students help coordinate and execute the parade and the night of the lighting of the square.

“It’s good experience and it’s hands-on. This is the way you get an event done,” said Heifner, “Some come in with a glamorous idea but really it’s a lot of schlepping and waiting around.”

The students added to their duties on lighting night by having a pet parade costume contest. Pictures could be taken with the furry friends and Santa. The students made more than $8,000 which was given to charity.

Heifner said with the strain in the economy in the last couple of years hasn’t affected the size or scale of the event.

“There was talk some years ago about doing away (with the lights) and it wasn’t favorable,” she explained.

The lights will stay on through Dec. 31. Admission is free with additional costs for certain vendors.

Some of the older lights from the Lights of the Ozarks display have found a new home at the Washington County Fairgrounds for “A County Fair Christmas” drive-through display.

This is the second year for that display and this year Ken Abernathy with Big Hats Consulting is on-board to help with logistics.

It took two people 10 days to install this holiday display with more than 12 inflatables. Abernathy estimates there are more than 10,000 lights with his display.

“We keep adding a little more each week,” he said.

Volunteers help Abernathy and his crew and so far have racked up more than 150 volunteer hours.

“We’re working to make something special,” he said, “We don’t claim to be the best in the world. It will take a couple of years and we want to make it different each year.”

Abernathy said the fair ground is perfect to add some activities and other events to the lighting display in the coming years because the fair ground is one huge canvas.

“The expectations are pretty high. Everything is a baby at one time unless you have gobs of money,” said Abernathy.

Heifner said the county display started with $5,000.

Lights, bows and bobbing elves might not seem expensive but Abernathy knows what it takes to make displays shine.

“I did malls and ran crews to decorate. If you walk through Northwest Arkansas mall and look at their decorations, it’s pretty minimal and I know it was a $300,000-400,000 originally,” he said.

Animated trains, elves on a synchronization box have been added since last year as well as an inflated snow globe that once lived on the downtown square.

“If people will stay with us and give us a chance you will see something special in a couple of years and we are looking to expand to events and get corporate sponsorship involved,” he said, “I love downtown and the square and we want to add something and compliment that.”

The display will open each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through Dec. 18 from 6 to 9 p.m. Admission is $5 per car.