For 14 years the Downtown Development Association (DDA) and the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce have partnered in the lighting of “the city and the lakefront” on the evening of the Friday after Thanksgiving just after the parade thru downtown. This year due to budget cuts, a lot of it seriously is in jeopardy.
I have been involved in this project for a little while and will try to recollect some history of the ceremony and what has transpired the last few years. Years ago most of the lakefront trees from the Mississippi River all the way through Library Park were lit. A grand lakefront ceremony would take place with the mayor throwing the switch with thousands watching the fireworks over Lake Bemidji after the lighting. Vendors would sell hot chocolate and some people said there was even hay or sleigh rides available. A fund drive was held every year and a sizeable amount of money was carried over year after year easily making the project more than self sufficient.
Fast forward to about 4 years ago. The city said due to budget cutbacks they could no longer hang the lights downtown and would only do a limited waterfront. Even doing what we are doing now takes a city crew of 2 with a bucket truck about two weeks to complete. Because of the cutbacks, a private electrical contractor had to be hired to do downtown at the cost of about $7000.00. The lights are provided to the Chamber at cost by Ace on the Lake. Total cost of the lights have risen to about $18,000. An attempt has been made in the past to reuse the lights, but because of breakage and the simple difficulty of taking them out of the trees this idea has been given up on. Another idea was to have volunteers do the project, but liability issues with the lights located in public access spaces has hampered that initiative. Two years ago due to rising costs the $3500 fireworks part of the evening was cancelled and has not returned.
This year the city has informed the parties involved that they cannot do any of the work. This is not a shot at the city, as everyone knows what financial difficulties they have been facing with the lack of state funding. This now means all of the electrical work will have to be done by hired private contractors, both the instillation and the removal process. Why are we discussing this now in the beginning of June? Well, orders must be placed with long lead times for the lights in order to assure on time delivery in October.
So where does this leave our metropolis of Bemidji. Here are our choices. $18,500 will do ½ of downtown and ½ of the lakefront. $34,000 will do all the downtown and all of the lakefront. And for $37,500 everything will be lighted and a fireworks show will be added to the occasion. All options are a lot of money. And June 15th is the cutoff that the organizations have declared for the decision to be made. Maybe a white knight is out among us somewhere? All donations go through the Northwest Minnesota Foundation meaning its tax deductable. For online giving go to: www.firstcityoflights.com
Here’s hoping the lights keep shining for year 15.