Based on the reaction of the organizers, city officials and the public, the Lights of the Northwoods preview event held last Thursday through Sunday far exceeded expectations. In fact, the holiday light display has been so popular that the organizers asked the city's parks buildings and grounds committee Monday for permission to keep part of the display lit until Dec. 31.
The committee quickly offered its approval.
Committee chair Sherrie Belliveau said the question of extending at least a portion of the event through the end of the month was first raised at the ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday evening. She said she talked to parks director Jeremy Biolo about the electricity needed to keep the display illuminated.
"I did some fuzzy math and the electricity cost would be about $126 through that period," Belliveau said.
Event organizer Shawn Will, who worked with a subgroup of the Rhinelander Lions Club to bring the light display to Hodag Park, said this would allow for all of the hanging lights to remain lit, however the ground displays will be removed since there are not enough volunteers to man and safeguard them through the end of the month.
As this event continues to grow, Belliveau said she's unsure how much monetary support the city will be able to give the initiative. "But we would probably be able to cover that bill (for this year) for you, if it passes at committee," she said.
Will thanked the city officials for all the help the city has provided since the idea was first suggested by Catherine Joppa in August 2016 as a way to generate food and cash donations for the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry.
"You guys have been phenomenal for us in everything that you have done," Will said. "Compliments have been coming in hand over fist. There have been some discussions about the congestion, and we did adapt to the traffic pattern a little bit, and demand increased itself after we adapted, so we tried to deal with that."
During the four days the full display was lit, there were no major complaints or injury reports from visitors or volunteers, he added.
"We did hear that there was an emergency call during the event, but because of the parallel roads it didn't cause any disruption to the fire service or anything like that," he said.
Early Sunday morning, Will posted on the event's Facebook page that 3,063 pounds of donated food had been collected and organizers hoped to top out at over 4,000 after that night.
"I'm glad to say that we did do that as we delivered 4,178 pounds of food to the food pantry this morning for a final total," Will said.
The estimated attendance, from a vehicle count and allowing for four-people per vehicle, was about 14,800, he added.
"Some of them (visited) multiple times," he said. "Some of them (came) from as far away as Montana. We did have a lot of people who came from Marshfield, Wausau, down south, and a couple people from up in Ishpeming and Hancock. So we did draw some people into the area who probably wouldn't have come without the event."
Will said the organizers have heard "a very loud cry" from people to extend the lights through the holiday season this year.
"We're not asking for a full light display and we're not asking to block Thayer up to Moonlighting (tavern) or all the way to Trig's for the next week," Will said.
He explained there is a lot of money invested in the animated displays and those would be removed, as would the island and walking path that had rope lighting so that the street through the park could be plowed in the event of snow.
"The displays will be down but the trees would still be lit," he said. "I will take personal responsibility here through the first of the year, if approved, to go down there and turn them on at 5 o'clock and turn them off at 9 o'clock each night, Will said.
As the committee was meeting, Crescent Elementary School students were caroling through Rhine Haus and planned to carol through the park, he added.
"We have somebody down there monitoring and there have already been 20 cars through there enjoying the display with the Crescent kids," Will said.
There would be no staffing during the limited display or any of the events at Stafford Field, he added.
Belliveau asked if the organizers have it stipulated in their guidelines that only LED lights be used, as not doing so would increase the cost of electricity. Will said that the only lights that will be used in the park and lit off the lines the group has run will be LED.
"That is because those would be ours and that is all we have purchased and used," he said. "With the exception of a couple of the icicle lights that are around the buildings. We would not be able to do a 10th of what we have down there if we had incandescents, so there is no way we could move forward if we are using incandescents; there is no way to make it bigger and better."
The committee unanimously approved a pair of motions, the first to allow the limited display through Dec. 31 and the other to cover the electric bill for the extension at a cost not to exceed $125.
Will said the group is committed to removing all of the remaining lights by Jan. 15, with the ground displays to be out by this Thursday, the original scheduled date of removal.
Belliveau, who helped Mayor Dick Johns with the ribbon cutting of the display Thursday, said she was very excited to see what the organizers had been able to do their first year.
"I was excited on two levels, because when we standing there waiting to cut the ribbon, all those little kids standing there were so excited," she said. "Seeing those kids so excited raised my excitement, too. I'm a stickler for Christmas lights and decorations, I love that."
"Everything I saw on social media was nothing but positive," she added.
However, Belliveau did note that traffic flow to the park will have to be addressed before next year's edition.
"I think they anticipated a big crowd, but I think they didn't anticipate that big of a crowd," she said.
After the meeting, Johns said this was the first time in his lifetime that something like this has ever been attempted in Rhinelander.
"I grew up in that park, I was there right after they built that building (beach house)," Johns said. "It's a hell of a nice thing to have happen to a community and I think we ought to do it again."
After the meeting, Will spoke in depth about the public's reaction to the inaugural display.
"We are, as a group, just humbled. I mean the amount of people that showed up, the amount of groups that showed up, the folks who came through more than once, people who came through and stated that this reminds me of my childhood; it's actually what we were trying to do," Will said. "Just to have the confirmation that the people really appreciated what we did, that was humbling."
The commentary on various social media sites has been nothing but positive, which has the organizers fired up for next year, he added.
"Obviously, there are a few things we can work on to improve it over the course of the next couple of years to make it better for everybody," he said. "We literally had people jumping out of their cars and giving committee members hugs on the way out, thanking us for doing it. We had families where the kids were just screaming out of their cars 'Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas,' they were singing as they went by. It was just a great, great time. The positive feedback has just been immense, Facebook and otherwise."
Will told the River News the response to the four-day event was a lot more intense than the organizers expected.
"We definitely felt that we had a great idea, and that we were going with a great idea. We felt we had the organization to put it together and get it done. But there was always that unknown, will they come and see it, do they want this? And then when we started seeing the lines of cars, and then when we heard they were backed up all the way to Moonlighting (tavern) and Saturday night they were waiting all the way out to Trig's," Will said, adding that he spoke to at least one person who was willing to go through the wait to see the display a second time in one night.
"I said 'you went through twice, you waited all that time?' And he said 'it was so good, we had to see it again,'" he said.
The finished product, which included over 50,000 lights, over two miles of cabling and 30 displays put together with the assistance of five bucket trucks and crews from WPS, also exceeded the group's expectations, he said.
"We knew what we saw in our heads, but we didn't know what we'd see when we got out to the park," he explained.
Many of the displays were sponsored by and some were even made by local businesses specifically for the event, he said. The commercial displays were purchased through Christmas Done Bright in Tennessee.
"We definitely had some pretty unique displays," Will said. "But I think we will be looking at some different vendors in the area and in the country to see if we can continue to bring in some of these unique displays that people don't have here too often. We have already been what I'd call spying on Marshfield, they have some really unique displays down there as well and we've gotten some great ideas to have some extended lighting but not be so very labor intensive. So we'll definitely be doing some of those."
He said Nate Scholten of Sounds & Motion handmade several large trees adorned with synchronized colored lights that proved to be the most favorite decorations of all the displays, and this has led the group to consider building more of its own displays next year.
Will said the organizers are already looking forward to next year, when it is hoped that the full display will be up longer.
"We've got bigger displays, we've got sponsors who pulled over to the side of the road and said thanks for having us, we look forward to being back next year. We had people pull alongside of us and said we didn't know it would be like this, we would love to be a part of this next year," Will said. "So we're going to expand the choirs, we're going to expand the caroling, we're going to expand kids' activities down by Santa. We have a lot of plans already, people are already talking about what can we do to make it better next year."
In addition to the over 4,000 pounds of food raised by the event, Will estimates that once all the bills from the event are paid, between $8,000 and $10,000 in cash was also collected.
This money will be split between the food pantry and the group to be used to buy more and bigger displays.
"The whole purpose of Lights of the Northwoods was to help build the infrastructure in the park. Not only for our purposes, but to expand the electrical capabilities in the park for everyone to use throughout the year," Will said. "So we will be investing back into that infrastructure, as well."
Although there will not be any collecting of cash or food donations through the end of the month, cash donations can be made at the group's website, www.lightsofthenorthwoods.com or mailed to P.O. Box 116 in Rhinelander in care of the group.
Joppa was invited to the ribbon cutting Thursday and a little display of a single candle was dedicated to her "because she was the one that brought the little spark of the idea to the city of Rhinelander."
"We brought her out there to celebrate the plan that she has had for a long time that our group was able to put into motion and get done," Will said. "I think we definitely impressed Catherine, I think we impressed everyone. We certainly impressed ourselves. When we turned on the switch for dress rehearsal, it was just bigger than we thought it would be."
Will thanked the entire community, including those who made donations and all of the nonprofit groups that helped bring the event to life, for creating a truly wonderful holiday experience for everyone.
"Rhinelander, you're awesome," he said. "Rhinelander area, you're awesome."
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted: Friday, December 22, 2017
Article comment by:
What a compliment to the holiday and the community. What if every vehicle turned on their blinking hazard lights when touring the park. Would it compliment or distract.
Food for thought Craig Strid
Posted: Thursday, December 21, 2017
Article comment by:
Congratulations to Shawn and the many volunteers on a job well done! Thank You!
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