Duluth may welcome holiday lights again

A massive holiday lighting display will return to Bayfront Festival Park this winter, assuming the Duluth City Council signs off on a proposed agreement Monday night.

As part of that agreement, the city would pick up the electrical bill for the Bentleyville Tour of Lights. Hank Martinsen, Duluth’s property services supervisor, estimates the attraction consumed about $12,000 worth of electricity last year — about 25 percent less power than it required several years ago, before it made the shift to LED lighting.

Nathan Bentley, Bentleyville’s founder and namesake, says that about 95 percent of the display’s lights are now LED.

Under previous agreements, Bentleyville had been asked to foot the first $5,000 of its electrical bill, with the city picking up the remainder of the tab.

Bentley expressed appreciation for the city’s assistance but noted that electricity accounts for but a small part of his total costs.

“In our $450,000 budget, that’s really pretty insignificant,” he said.

“Honestly, we spend more money on cookies, hot chocolate and zip ties. We spend more money on things people don’t even think about,” Bentley said.”Santa gives out $30,000 worth of winter caps each year.”

Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth, considers the city’s support well justified by the benefits of Bentleyville.

“To have an event of this magnitude that is drawing people from far and wide and growing every single year, to me this is one of the best investments the city could consider making. For a minimal investment on the city’s behalf, the rewards probably outweigh it by 200 to one,” she said.

Last year, Bentleyville welcomed more than 265,000 visitors.

Tanski cited a 2014 survey that showed that between 55 and 60 percent of Bentleyville visitors came from within 50 miles of Duluth, and the remainder traveled longer distances, often spending the night.

She said that even by a conservative estimate, those visitors from near and far contributed about $20 million to the local economy.

Tanski said Duluth also realizes intangible benefits as a result of hosting Bentleyville.

“It’s a really magical experience, and it’s a different type of experience to bring people here. It appeals to every age and every demographic. It really is an inclusive, all-encompassing event that is so visual. It really frames Duluth in the best possible way, especially at a time of year when we might otherwise take it on the chin a little bit because of our weather or being in a colder climate. This just gives us all the more reason to celebrate,” she said.

Since its inception, the event has always been free and open to the public.

“Christmastime should not be about money,” Bentley said. “Everybody can have the same experience at Bentleyville, whether they put a dollar in our donation box or they don’t have the ability to do that.”

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson lauded the spirit of Bentleyville.

“One of things I’ve always liked about Bentleyville is that it’s a free event,” she said. “The holidays can be a difficult time for a lot of people. And to have a community embrace the idea of light and giving like that, just can’t be beat.”

Larson predicts the entire city will continue to benefit from the event.

“We have seen huge number of people come downtown, and when they come downtown they often stay downtown,” she said.

Bentleyville first opened in Duluth in 2009, and Bentley has continued to increase the size of the holiday light display each year, with the help of a volunteer crew that now numbers about 600 people.

Bentley is laying plans to expand the event this year, with a new light display next to the Great Lakes Aquarium and the addition of a second main entrance.

“This year will bring the largest significant changes that people have ever seen down at Bentleyville. We’re trying to accommodate the heavy crowds we’ve been drawing and to provide a better experience for everybody,” Bentley said.

Martinsen said he’s been impressed by the volunteer operation.

“They do a great job in setting everything up and taking everything down and organizing the event. They really do a first-class job, and it goes off without a hitch every year,” he said. “They’ve been really good community partners.”

Kristi Stokes, president of Duluth’s Greater Downtown Council, praised the city for its support of the event.

“It’s a significant return on an investment and a great partnership for our community,” she said. “Bentleyville has drawn in hundreds of thousands of people, pumping up our economy during the winter season. We are fortunate to have such a magical attraction along our downtown waterfront.”

David Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, said it’s hard to fully measure the impact of the holiday light display.

“Bentleyville puts Duluth squarely on the map in November and December, not just statewide but nationwide,” he said.”You can’t go by there on a starry night without being awestruck, and it’s a free family-oriented event.”

Bentley said volunteers will begin staging lights and equipment at Bayfront on Sept. 19, with setup work beginning on the 24th.

Bentleyville is slated to open to the public on Saturday,. Nov. 19. And it will close Dec. 26 with its traditional culmination — a fireworks show.

Written by Peter Passi as published in the Duluth News Tribune