Highlands Chamber proposes ‘lighting up’ downtown

Wrapping 24 trees on Main Street with white, LED lights, seven months of the year was proposed by Chamber of Commerce representatives at the July 18 Town Board meeting.

The agenda item was listed as “Chamber of Commerce Holiday Lighting Proposal” but it entailed more than that.

Chamber chair Hilary Wilkes and Kay Craig suggested the 24 trees on two blocks of Main from 5th to 3rd streets, including the end-cap trees, be wrapped – trunk and limbs — with lights turned on dusk to dawn or some specific timeframe, October until just after Easter.

They showed a quick video of lighted trees along a street that the company who would do the work We Hang Christmas Trees” did elsewhere.

Pictured below is the video that was shown at the Town Board meeting of an example of We Hang Christmas Lights’ work.

Wilkes said one of the Chamber’s goals is to make the experience of visitors as heightened as possible while they are here.

“Throughout the country small towns use lights during all times of year to make guests feel welcome and they create an ambiance in the downtown area which encourages folks to stick around, relax, maybe walk around after dinner and make use of the Main Street area,” she said.

Kay Craig said she has heard from a lot of people Highlands is dreary after thy Christmas lights are taken down.

“With the lights, when folks come here in February, March, and January and they are pulling into town, even though its 6 o’clock at night instead of pitch black what they would be coming into is something lit up, more welcoming,” said Wilkes. “It may help with commerce, but this is really just to provide ambiance for our downtown area. If we like it, we can look at going up and down 4th street toward the park.”

Wilkes said she doesn’t want the moniker “holiday lights” attached to the proposal because it’s more a “fall and winter lighting” proposal.

She said the Chamber board has already approved this as an expenditure. “We Hang Christmas Lights” has proposed $30,700, to install the lights, check them once a month, maintain them and take them down.

“What we seek from the town is the electrical piece of it — making sure we have access to power and for the town to also pay the power bill,” said Wilkes.

Wilkes said they wanted approval from the Town Board that night, because “We Hang Lights” has to start preparing lights tomorrow.”

She said the company needs three to four weeks to get them on every tree in late August early September so they are ready for the fall season the first of October. They would be taken down just after Easter – this year April 19; that would give the trees four or five months to grow before the lights are put on again.

She said people have asked if the town’s traditional colored lights would still be up during the holidays to provide a distinction but she said she didn’t know if it’s possible with the lights planned for the project, or if there is a need for the colored holiday lights.

“It seems like we would have enough decoration with the wreaths around town,” she said.

Wilkes said they hadn’t discussed the logistics of the project with anyone at the town level. Mayor Pat Taylor said a lot of questions needed to be answered including the feasibility. Public Works Director/ Town Engineer Lamar Nix who was not at the meeting would have to be consulted before the project could possibly move forward.

Commission Amy Patterson, John Dotson and Eric Pierson said they weren’t ready to give a blanket “yes” that night.

“I am certainly not prepared to approve this tonight because that [the video] was too gaudy. Every one of those trees had soooo many lights on them. That to me doesn’t look like Highlands at all. It looks like Las Vegas or something,” she said. “There is a lot of light pollution, too. I like our dark skies so you can actually see the stars.”

Craig and Wilkes both said the video depicted a street with many more trees than Highlands has and Highlands’ trees are much more spread out.

Wilkes said timers could be considered – with the lights coming on at dusk and going off at 11 p.m.

“There are considerations. We want to make sure it’s tasteful and not overly done but that it will create a night glow when people are milling about right after dinner and window shopping,” she said. “When people arrive in town at 5 or 6 on a Friday for a winter weekend and it’s dark and it’s hard to tell what’s open or if anything is happening. We want the lights to be part of the atmosphere in town without taking away from the beautiful nature of our town. And yes, light pollution has come up … but timers and the percentage of lights can be discussed.”

Commissioner Pierson said first up Nix had to be in the mix.

“I would hate to say yes to this and find out the town has to spend thousands to make it happen,” he said. This is just very new to us and we haven’t seen anything about this prior to tonight’s meeting. Lamar has to look at this from an electrical standpoint.”

Commissioner Dotson agreed on both counts and said the town also has a holiday lighting ordinance and its likely it would have to change for the chamber’s proposal to happen.

Town Attorney JK Coward the ordinance may have to change because the lighting involves “land use” which would require a public hearing prior to an ordinance amendment.

Commissioner Patterson said she also wanted more citizen input not just recommendations from committees.

Wilkes said the chamber has gotten great response from the business owners and “public comment” would be good to hear before the Town Board ultimately votes.

Wilkes reiterated that the purpose is to create an atmosphere of energy, and of things going on so people are encouraged to use the sidewalks at night.

“We thought, in lieu of just holiday time, let’s really try to help our businesses throughout the winter and in particular keep people downtown — make people want to be downtown — even though it’s so dark and foggy sometime.”

She said the issue is time-sensitive but the chamber wants to do it right and with the blessing of the town.

“We clearly can’t do it without your blessing, and we want everybody to get their questions answered,” she said.

Commissioner Patterson said there is a huge spectrum from what she saw on the video and what could be done.

“And I don’t know where that is. For me anyway, it would be hard to just give a blank ‘yes’ and say do whatever you want to do. We need a concrete proposal about what can and can’t be done from Lamar. Plus, our Christmas lights will be going up during the holiday season and they will be using our power.”

In the end, Mayor Taylor said the series of events leading up to a vote would be a Public Works Committee meeting with Nix, a discussion at the Planning Board as to appearance, which could also mean an recommended verbiage to amend the ordinance which would require an advertised public hearing  prior to a vote from the Town Board.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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