Bentleyville closes with a bangThe Bentleyville Tour of Lights 2011 ended with a bang Monday night at Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park, where the season-long holiday lighting display was capped with a fireworks show.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
The Bentleyville Tour of Lights 2011 ended with a bang Monday night at Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park, where the season-long holiday lighting display was capped with a fireworks show.
Bentleyville’s last night was paired with the city’s annual Warmer by the Lake skating event for one last holiday hurrah. And it was indeed warmer by the lake — with record temperatures in the mid-40s along the harbor greeting a crowd big enough to cause traffic jams.
The unseasonable temperatures melted the snow that had afforded Bentleyville a white Christmas for the past few days, and it made skating a bit slushy. But that didn’t matter to the throngs of people who came for the last show.
“We haven’t seen it before. We saw on the Explore Minnesota website that this was going to be the last night so we said, ‘What the heck, let’s go,’” said Tom Brand, who made the 288-mile round trip from Rice, Minn., with his wife, Barb, just to see the lights. “But it was worth it.”
“Well worth it,” Barb Brand added.
The Brands were among the more than 200,000 people who walked through Bentleyville this year, counted by an electronic eye, over the 37 nights the tour was open. That’s up from 180,000 last year and 150,000 in 2009, the first year Nathan Bentley moved his lighting display from his Esko yard to Duluth’s Bayfront Park.
“This is our third night in a row. We think it’s just great,” said Natalie Hare of Duluth.
Monday night’s guest book included visitors from Kaukauna, Wis., Morris, Minn, the Iron Range and Norway. Sandy Preston of Pattison Park south of Superior brought an army of 13 relatives in town for the holidays, some from Texas and Iowa, to see the display.
“Everyone wanted to come. And the nice weather doesn’t hurt,” Preston noted. “We wouldn’t be here if it was 20 below.”
Bentley said he knew this season was going well when organizers had to place an emergency order to Arco Coffee in Duluth for an extra 30 cases of hot cocoa mix.
“We gave out 11,000 cups of hot chocolate one night when the counter showed 13,000 people,” Bentley said.
The lack of sub-zero cold, ice storms and snowstorms that had plagued the first two years in Duluth helped boost attendance this year, Bentley said. “It’s been a great year. The warm weather really helped us. People just kept coming,” he said.
More than 600 volunteers have helped run the operation, some helping out since Sept. 24 when the display started to go up. It takes about 60 volunteers each night to make the display run well, Bentley said.
Bentleyville, which is run by a private, nonprofit corporation, had a roughly $400,000 budget for 2012, including cash and in-kind donations – like the use of a crane and crew to erect the 75-foot lighted Christmas tree in the center of the park.
Donations were down some, but parking was up a bit, Bentley said. Half of the $5 charged in the adjoining lots goes to Bentleyville and half to the lot’s owners, the Duluth Economic Development Authority.
Bentley said plans are in the works to add more and larger displays for 2012, and maybe retire some of the older displays that made the trip from his Esko yard. There are also plans to double the size of the hot chocolate house to offer more hot water. Supply simply can’t keep up with demand on busy nights, he said.
We’re still getting local people coming back. And we are getting more and more people from the Twin Cities, the Iron Range, southern Wisconsin, who say they just heard about it. We’re getting more coach buses full of people now,” Bentley said. “Some of the local motels ran Bentleyville specials and their shuttles have been running nonstop.”
There were a few cases of theft of extension cords at outlying lighting displays along Railroad Street, but nothing major, Bentley noted. But this year’s biggest issue was dealing with the legal dispute by local street preachers who just last week won a temporary injunction in federal court allowing them to preach in Bentleyville.
A few preachers have been at the park on some recent nights, “but it’s not the guys who filed the lawsuit. It’s been different people,” Bentley said, including a few on Christmas night. There were no reports of any confrontations or other issues, he said.
The preachers were not seen at the park early Monday evening.
Bentleyville and city officials had argued that because it is a private organization, Bentleyville reserved the right to refuse to allow people from making any kind of disruption. But the federal court said the preaching is allowed under the First Amendment, at least for now.
A full court hearing is expected early in 2012. But Bentley said lawyers already are working on a way to tighten its contract to use the city park to allow Bentleyville to turn away the preachers in future years.
“Obviously we are going to have to make some changes in our contract with the city to take care of that situation,” Bentley said. “That’s probably the only major change we’ll see for next year. Other than that, everything has gone really well this year.”