The future of downtown Greater Napanee’s Big Bright Light Show was a subject of polite debate for the Town Council Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, with most councillors agreeing that the tourist attraction, in its current form, had run its course, but should be updated and modernized.
Brandt Zatterberg, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for the Town, presented a report to Council, prepared by Town Staff, outlining the history and future possibilities for the light show.
Napanee’s Big Bright Light Show began in 2010, with buildings in the downtown having lights strung to cover their entire facades. The effect is to create a downtown core that is wall-to-wall festive and bright, drawing tourists to shop and dine downtown in the winter months.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, “flipping the switch” to turn on the lights was celebrated with a block party downtown, with music and outdoor activities. Local stores and restaurants also put on a downtown shopping party each year with horse-drawn carriage rides, visits from live reindeer, carolers, and even Santa himself. After more than a decade of operation, the display has gained recognition as a fun attraction that brings visitors to shop and dine while enjoying the lights. They have been featured in travel magazines and by bloggers, and most community members look forward to them being turned on after Remembrance Day each year.
However, the operation has not come without a cost; the light show averages about $30,000 a year for Staff hours and equipment to install, repair, and replace the lights.
To this end, Town Staff recommended that Council receive, for information, research they had done about modernizing the attraction, and asked that Council provide feedback on a direction to be taken for the future of the Big Bright Lights installations.
Options included maintaining the status quo, at a predicted annual cost of $30,000, or implementing new, modern light systems.
Of the different ideas presented for consideration, one would see the light show moved entirely to the Town Hall – using modern technology (digitally-controlled projectors and lightweight flexible strands of led nodes) to illuminate the historic building, but eliminating the lights in the downtown core – at a predicted initial cost of $70,000, with minor annual fees thereafter. While this option removes the major time and staffing constraints the current method involves, and allows for the year-round integration of Town Hall for celebrations (proclamation, holidays, etc.), Staff were concerned about how the public will receive it, as it removes the draw of the downtown core.
A second proposal would see the same technology described in the first concept, applied in the downtown core instead, on the four corner buildings at two intersections in the downtown. Public perception and perceived preferential treatment, as well as a significant investment of about $250,000 are the cons for this plan.
A final option of a full-scale new system – replacing the entire current grid system downtown and incorporating Town Hall – would incorporate all of the aforementioned positives with a major upfront investment of $750,000.
The reception from Council was, predictably, mixed.
Deputy Mayor Max Kaiser thought the complete overhaul of the system, “is a really neat idea.”
“I really liked the design of these multicoloured lights being able to change or put things up there for different seasons… I don’t want to give up the whole downtown street,” he said. “I’m kind of in favour of keeping what we have… I like the gaudiness of Christmas and lots of great multicoloured lights.”
Councillor Dave Pinnell echoed many of Kaiser’s sentiments while saying he might like to see the Town Hall better incorporated in some way but, “there’s no way that I would ever go for $750,000 for a new system when we can spend 30 [thousand] and have just as much joy.”
“I hate to sound like a Grinch,” interjected Councillor Bob Norrie, “But I think these lights have run their course… forget the $30,000 – four months of work; put ’em up, take ’em down – that’s a lot of man-hours… that takes away from Staff doing other things. We have new lighting out there now that we can change, we can use all year round, and we should be looking at that because… we have to look to the future.”
Councillor John McCormack agreed with Norrie, but also pointed out, “I don’t know why we’re talking about Town Hall right now, having not decided what we’re going to do with the building. And I’d like to get away from the lights that we have, as suggested by Councillor Norrie, [and] look at some technology that’s easier to handle and doesn’t have to be put up and taken down.”
This point made, the topic arose that maybe the program should extend to other points beyond downtown, and the discussion veered in the direction of discussing options with the Downtown Greater Napanee BIA and other potential business sites in town who might wish to be included.
For her part, Councillor Ellen Johnson summed things up neatly.
“Napanee has become synonymous with the Christmas lights. And if people start coming during the Christmas season to go to the restaurants and see the lights and it’s dark, that’s not a situation we want to be in either,” she said. “$750,000 is certainly not on the table, but developing partnerships and expanding the boundaries and still creating a spirit of Christmas or something that can be used throughout the year is definitely a benefit to our community. It’s really sad downtown when the lights get turned off; things get dark and it’s the middle of winter and people feel the difference. I don’t feel this is something that we can just walk away from.”
In the end, no immediate decision was taken. The lights will remain on for the winter of 2022/2023. Staff continue to investigate other options for discussion during the 2023 budget, while continuing to seek community sponsorships, grants, and other partnerships to support these options.
To see a full copy of the report to Town Council regarding proposed concepts for the Big Bright Light Show, including examples of some of the proposed lighting options, click here.