When Napanee’s Big Bright Light Show switched off last winter, quite a few people, it seems, were unaware the lights would not return this season.
Social media exchanges between members of locally based groups such as “What’s Going on Napanee” on Facebook express much confusion about how and why that decision was made. Citizens and even some downtown business owners commented about not knowing about the change.
Napanee’s Big Bright Light Show began in 2010, with the Town stringing lights in colourful panel-blocks over the upper storeys/façades of downtown buildings. According to a Town staff report in February 2022, “the draw and intention for this initiative was to support tourism to the Town.” Prior to the pandemic, “the flipping of the switch” just after Remembrance Day was a festive public event that drew a large crowd each year. The lights would then stay on each night for roughly two months, at which time staff would spend weeks removing them and putting them away for the following year.
However, that same February 2022 report also maintained that “the operation has not come without a cost; not only directly in the form of staff wages, light replacement, and lift repairs/rentals but also the indirect cost of staff spending a large number of hours on a single service with feedback metrics that are difficult to define and measure.” It noted that the average cost to maintain the light show between 2017 and 2022 was nearly $30,000 a year.
With that established, the Council at the time debated the implementation of a new modernized system. But in the end, no immediate decision for action was made. The lights remained on for the winter of 2022/2023, but then, in March 2023, it was determined in a Council vote that the light display would be moved to the waterfront.
Reached for comment, Brandt Zatterberg, Napanee’s Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, said, “It was all part of a gradual conversation.”
In the February 2022 Council meeting, Councillor Bob Norrie stated bluntly, “I hate to sound like a Grinch, 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.”
However, Zatterberg noted, the cost of replacing the lights with a modern LED system was also very high. “Gosh, it was like three-quarters of a million,” he commented.
Since that time, the Town has looked at remodelling the historic Town Hall and the square surrounding it. Part of that renovation plan involves the installation of an LED light system, which Zatterberg said could mark special occasions year-round.
Zatterberg explained that this was why, a year after the modernization discussion by the last Council, the current Council was provided the option of moving the light display downtown to Conservation/Springside Park in a report on Tuesday, Mar. 28, 2023, titled “Market House & Town Hall (with 2023 Events List).”
However, the only reason for this listed in the report was, “moving Christmas lights to Conservation/Springside Parks will reduce impact on resources.” The report also implied that new plans would be designed to be less of a drain on Town staff hours, noting, “volunteer management will be a key to the success of the Market House and Christmas lights project.”
At that time, Zatterberg explained to council that the lights were included with the Town Hall and Market projects, along with a request for $100,000 to be used in applying for grant opportunities to be used toward the Town Hall updates, because “staff see them as interconnected.”
He pointed out in this week’s conversation that the decision earlier this year about the fate of the Big Bright Light Show was also timed to allow staff to remove the lights, the anchors, and any fixtures at the same time.
Before voting on the question, Mayor Terry Richardson specifically raised the lights as a topic of conversation, saying he didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle. No council members chose to discuss it at that time, and voted in favour of the move.
Zatterberg stated that no one was blindsided by this change.
“The decision, the dialogue, and the conversation about the lights had been happening on and off for over three years,” he said, “It wasn’t a like a sudden revelation that it had to happen. It was just a gradual, like, ‘This is getting harder and harder to get them in place.’”
Zatterberg added that arrangements with the building owners themselves added complexity to the Big Bright Lights initiative: “Every year we’re having one or two more buildings where the property owners say, ‘We’re not interested anymore.’… They just spent a lot of money on a renovation or something. And they said, ‘We don’t want that happening on the outside of the building again.’”
“Originally, it was the BIA members participating in it,” he continued. “There was some money put in, but that never happened again. The Town’s general tax levy was used for replacing the lights. Every year it was costing about $3,000/year to replace lights.”
Though Zatterberg didn’t have any information to share about the new Light Up The Park celebration beyond the date, he suggested reaching out to someone on his staff team, who in turn passed the message on to another staff member. By the time of this publication, no response to Kingstonist’s information request was received.
Shaune Lucas is a Napanee merchant whose family owns seven downtown buildings. He also served on the Town Council when the first Big Bright Light Show took place.
“At that time, we had a complete agreement,” Lucas said, “Council, staff, property owners, businesses, and sponsors: everybody was on board; a very difficult task when you deal with the number of property owners involved in getting everyone onside… The initial agreement at the time was for I think, five years… but it’s gone on longer than the expected time frame.”
Lucas expressed a sense of frustration about the change this year and how it all came about. He said the Town was counting on the building owners to pay for the Big Bright Light Show to continue, rather than planning to fund it with taxes or by finding sponsors, but that this wasn’t the initial model.
“Trans Canada [now TC Energy] was a sponsor way back when,” Lucas noted.
He attended a council meeting in January 2023, where he advocated for more consultation with the merchants by the Town, specifically mentioning the Lights. He emphasized the importance of community participation and having a game plan in place for events like the lights, and expressed frustration with the recent lack of communication and coordination between the Town and property owners, suggesting that property owners, merchants, and the public all need to “buy into the game plan.”
Lucas added, “Back when we had the initial Light Show, that was a big expense. A lot of people paid a lot of money to get it going. We now have 15 years of goodwill going into it,” Lucas added, noting that he feels like he and others who invested their money and their property in the endeavour were left out of the decision this time.
“I pay my fair share. [Another property owner] has a ton of buildings. A lot of little little independents have them. I pay my taxes on each building. I paid the hydro bill. I paid the initial capital cost upfront. We fulfilled our agreement [with the Town]. We’ve been running without an agreement for the last few years… it would have been nice to be told, ‘thank you for letting us use your buildings and for paying the hydro.’”
Going forward, Lucas said he would love to see something like an improved light system in the downtown core with a year-round component, “but you’ve got to think big; shoot for the galaxy, not just the moon, and you should have a plan.”
A public notice on the Town’s Facebook page reads “Light up the Park — Join us on Friday, December 8, 2023, from 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm as we light up the park! NorthFire Circus will have festive “streetwalkers” going between Springside Park and Conservation Park from 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm. There will also be a 30-minute Fire Performance at 6:00 pm near the Pavilion at Conservation Park. Celebrate the holidays with a walk through our parks to enjoy a night of festive lights! This event is free to attend.”