Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Christmas Lights and A Little Pixie Dust Changed My Downtown!

In 2005, I was on vacation at my favorite destination, Walt Disney World, minding my own business when inspiration struck. I had been to Disney World many times before, and had heard about the Osbourne Family Spectacle of Lights at the Disney-MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios) but was never there at the right time to see it.  That year, we decided to stay longer than usual, and that meant we would be there for opening night of the light show.

We staked out our spot at the end of the event street, excited to see what all the fuss was about.  As the snow fell (thanks to Disney magic), the announcers hosted a mock radio show, telling the story of the lights and how they came to be at Disney World.  When they flipped the switch, my heart skipped a beat.  Being a Christmas chick at heart, the lights made me feel like a kid again.  Then I realized the 5,000+ people around me were feeling the exact same thing.  And it hit me. Could we do this in Rochester?

The next morning I woke up in logistics mode.  We raced back to the park to figure out how it all worked.  (Did I mention how lucky I am to have such and understanding and supportive husband?) We took photos of everything, picked up every piece of advertising I could find and was well on the way to creating a proposal for my Board.  Two weeks later, I had my DDA Executive Committee Meeting (including the City Manager and Mayor) and pitched the idea, complete with a video of the show.  Surely they would see the same thing that I saw?  How could they say no?  Well, they did.  Very nicely and politely, they let me down easy.  The reason - well no one else has ever done this, it's too big of a risk.  I was disappointed, but I understood.

But my disappointment didn't last for long.  A few hours later, the Mayor called.  He had a chance to think about it and the idea really grew on him.  He became the champion for the event, even going so far as to ask the Council to throw in $35,000 of seed money to get the event off the ground.  By February 2006, I had all the City approvals and monies needed to pull off the show and The Big, Bright Light Show was born.

The next few months I was back in logistics mode, getting signed agreements from all the property owners to allow us to string holiday lights on their buildings every four inches.  To make it interesting, our Main Street is a state highway, so I had to get the Michigan Department of Transportation involved. As you might imagine, they are not big fans of anything in their right-of-way, let alone a really large display of lights.  After several meetings, phone calls and a fair amount of begging, everything was in place.  Now the big question, will anyone come to see it?

So there we were the Monday after Thanksgiving in 2006, ready to flip the switch on 500,000 lights.  Around town, we now lovingly refer to that night as The Perfect Storm.  Who could have predicted that we would have 65 degree weather, that our local ABC affiliate would take a special interest in the show and that about 50,000 people had nothing better to do than to come downtown?  The lights went on, and in an instant, my downtown changed. 

Over the next month, the visitors continued to flock to downtown to see the lights.  And more importantly, they stayed.  They shopped in our stores, they ate in our restaurants and that translated to an average 29% increase in sales for our downtown businesses.  Fast forward to 2011 and next Monday we will be flipping the switch on over 1.5 million lights during the 6th Annual Big, Bright Light Show.

So what did The Big, Bright Light Show teach me?  You can't find inspiration, it finds you.  No doesn't always mean no.  Christmas lights and a little bit of pixie dust can change your downtown.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Downtown Geek

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