Organizers of the third annual Lights of the Northwoods holiday light display at Rhinelander's Hodag Park are calling the two-weekend event a success, having raised 3,500 pounds of nonperishable food donations for three area food pantries.
Shawn Will, president of the Lights of the Northwoods (LOTN), said the food collected this year was divided between the Rhinelander, Elcho and Tomahawk food pantries.
"It went very well, very well," Will said of the 2019 event. "We collected 2,100 pounds for Rhinelander and another 1,400 pounds distributed between Elcho and Tomahawk. So 3,500-plus pounds total."
This is the second year that the food donations have been split between the Rhinelander and Elcho pantries and the first time that Tomahawk was included.
The 2017 display, which only lasted one weekend, was considered a preview event. Last year's event involved a total of 100,000 lights and there were even more this year.
"We went from 100,000 to 175,000 lights (this year). So we added 75,000 more lights this year," Will said, adding that getting an exact count of how many people went through the light displays is difficult.
"We've averaged the last two years over 10,000, last year we were at 12,008," Will said. "This year it seemed a little bit slower, so it was probably 10,000 people."
Getting an accurate head count was complicated because of how the displays could be accessed, including the trolley that was loaned to LOTN organizers by the Oneida County Fair.
"We count by the number of books that we hand out, and we estimate four people per car," Will said. "But that doesn't count the walking path, and the walking path definitely increased in traffic this year. We had an increase in the trolley because we didn't have the trolley before and we had a lot of people visit by the trolley this year."
Based on car traffic, the number of visitors was down, but when the walking path and trolley were factored in, the number of people who visited Hodag Park this year for the event was up, Will explained.
This year was the first time that LOTN was operating under its own 501c3 non-profit designation from the Internal Revenue Service. Previously, LOTN operated under the Rhinelander Lions Club 501c3, which meant all donations to the group were tax-deductible.
"We achieved that just about a month before (the event)," Will said. "Now we're officially on our own, which is a very good accomplishment. We're now basically the captain of our own boat, as it is."
Will also said the community continues to be very supportive of the event.
"We definitely have a lot of people that are interested," Will said. "I definitely think this is something that is building momentum. We definitely built momentum from the first year to the second and each year we have gotten bigger and better. Looking forward, with all of the interest from the community and stuff, I think it is going to keep getting bigger and better."
This was the second year that visitors could take a shuttle bus from downtown Rhinelander to the event, which Will said has helped reduce traffic congestion.
"The first year we had it come from Trig's to the walking path, and this year we moved it to behind CT's Deli so we could involve DRI (Downtown Rhinelander, Inc.) and the businesses downtown," he said. "And we got some great support from the folks downtown. A lot of the businesses downtown worked with us to help sponsor the bus."
Will also noted that Bowen's Bus Service also gave LOTN a "very generous price" on the shuttle service as a way to help sponsor the event. He also noted that LOTN would like to do more to include the downtown businesses in the event.
"To tie the event to downtown Rhinelander and to the park and make it a whole community event," he said. "I think a lot of people appreciate being able to park downtown and take the bus to the event. Now we have the trolley so they can ride the trolley through the event, walk through the event or they can do both."
When asked if there was a chance the event could be expanded to three weekends in 2020, or operate during weekdays, Will said both scenarios are possible but there would be challenges.
"The main challenge in that is staffing and weather. Having people out in the cold all night long, depending on the weather, it takes quite a toll. The colder it is, the more staff we have to have so we can rotate them out," Will explained. "Our hope is always to build this thing bigger and longer."
While the lights have been put away for another year, Will said planning is already underway for the 2020 edition of event.
The next meeting of the group is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9 at the Hodag Steakhouse.
People interested in getting involved, but who are unable to attend that meeting, can use the "contact us" tab on the group's website at www.lightsofthenorthwoods.com.
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