Chilly pedestrians walking along the streets of the downtown core over the past months have been warmed by the glow of neon hearts hanging in the windows of local businesses, but the initiative that brought these signs to the community has raised some questions even as it raises spirits.
The neon signs, shaped like hearts and in multiple different colours, have steadily popped up in more and more windows of businesses in the downtown core. The brightness, vibrancy, and symbolism of the heart-shape is meant to signify to passersby that “we’re still here,” explained Megan Knott, Executive Director of Tourism Kingston, the agency that has undertaken this initiative.
“The aim was to bring joy to the community, raise awareness about the economic impact, and create a lighting display that would bring people into these businesses to shop and dine,” Knott said in an email, noting that the lights were purposefully purchased in rainbow colours so that they can be incorporated into Pride month. “We partnered with other community organizations to access storefronts and the lights were purchased and installed in the sequence of the Pride flag, so that during Pride month in June, storefronts could participate in celebrations, knowing that the traditional parade and other in-person activities were unlikely to occur.”
The neon heart lights, which are actually energy-friendly LED lights manufactured to emulate traditional neon signs, were purchased by Tourism Kingston and given to local downtown businesses within the Downtown Kingston! Business Improvement Area free of charge. However, Tourism Kingston soon began to get requests from Kingston residents to purchase the lights, Knott explained.
“Our initial intent was to install the neon hearts in storefronts only, and we purchased 300 to do so. Once they were installed, however, residents asked how they could purchase them as well. We sold the small number of extra hearts that we had, established a waitlist, and placed another order of 300 lights, which we have made available for purchase on visitkingston.ca,” she said. “The hearts are for sale at our cost. They are selling well.”
However, as sales of the heart-shaped lights increased, residents and business owners began to ask some questions, such as where the lights are manufactured. According to Tourism Kingston, the lights were purchased through an already-existing supplier for the Visitors Information Centre, which is run by Tourism Kingston.
“The lights had to be LED for energy efficiency, affordable, easy to hang and use (they work with a remote), available in Pride colours, and delivered quickly. We found a supplier based in Montreal that could provide all of these qualifiers and had stock right away,” Knott noted.
With two orders for 300 lights at $65 per light, the neon hearts have cost Tourism Kingston approximately $39,000. As Tourism Kingston is an arms-length agency of the City of Kingston and is not a municipal Department, the agency is not required to adhere to the City’s purchasing and procurement bylaws. This means no public bidding process for supplying the lights was required to take place, and Tourism Kingston did not choose to conduct such a process. Knott indicated the supplier of the lights was already a known supplier to the Visitors Information Centre, which is operated by Tourism Kingston.
The Montreal-based supplier, Neonific, confirmed with Kingstonist that all manufacturing of the neon-like lights is done overseas. According to documentation obtained by Kingstonist through an anonymous source, the lights are manufactured in China.
Similar LED heart-shaped lights can be found which are manufactured in Canada can be found online – including a fundraiser through Toronto-based company Moss LED that donates $10 from each purchase to Michael Garron Hospital Foundation – though they are more expensive at approximately $100 each.
Knott also addressed the question of where the funding came for the lights that were supplied to business owners in the downtown core free of charge. “The funding for this program came from our marketing budget, which is funded through the Municipal Accommodation Tax,” Knott said.
The Municipal Accommodation Tax, implemented by Kingston City Council in March of 2018, is paid by visitors staying in Kingston hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts for 30 days or less. It is not a tax on local businesses, and the funds collected are reinvested in tourism promotion and tourism products, according to documentation from the City of Kingston.
Although Knott noted that the lights are currently being sold to residents at-cost for $65 each, they were initially being sold by Tourism Kingston for over $90. Some residents voiced concern over this cost on the agency’s social media posts, prompting Tourism Kingston to respond that they were lowering the price for the lights to the $65 at-cost rate to make them more affordable for all.
“Thanks for your feedback. We have adjusted the price to $65 (our cost) and refunded the difference to those who have purchased,” Tourism Kingston wrote in response to comments on their post.
Despite concerns from the community that internationally-sourced lights undermine the message of supporting local businesses, Knott and her colleague, Alison Migneault, Director of Marketing and Communications for Tourism Kingston, maintain that the lights are part of a bigger campaign that’s meant to highlight that supporting local business is more important now, during the pandemic, than ever before.
“Early in the pandemic, the Conference Board of Canada identified Kingston as one of the cities in Canada most at risk economically because of the size of our hospitality workforce, which is about 9 per cent of Kingston’s total employment. Early economic impact numbers for 2020 bear this out – tourism is down about 45 per cent over 2019, which led to a $533 million economic impact,” Knott relayed in an email. “With each lockdown, Tourism Kingston has worked hard to support local businesses such as restaurants, retailers, attractions and hotels, often working outside of our traditional sales and marketing mandate to ensure our partners survive the pandemic and the city can thrive again when it is over.”
Knott notes that the response to the initiative amongst Kingston residents as well as businesses has been largely positive. “It’s been really satisfying to hear positive feedback from the community and see pictures of the hearts hung in their homes showing support for the community we all love.”