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Lights going out on Hartwood Acres Christmas display

| Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, 11:36 a.m.
Items used for Hartwood Acres Celebration of Lights are stored near the mansion Park on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. The annual light display won't be set up this year because of money constraints. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Items used for Hartwood Acres Celebration of Lights are stored near the mansion Park on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. The annual light display won't be set up this year because of money constraints. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Carloads of festive patrons travel through the Hartwood Acres Celebration of Lights on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Carloads of festive patrons travel through the Hartwood Acres Celebration of Lights on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

The electric spectacle of the annual Celebration of Lights at Hartwood Acres is going dark.

Allegheny County is canceling the 20-year holiday tradition because it can't continue to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the festival each year and couldn't find a sponsor to help defray the approximately $1.5 million cost.

“If a giant benefactor stepped in, then yes, we could do it, but it would have to be soon,” county spokeswoman Amie Downs said on Monday. “It's labor intensive, and it's time to start putting up the lights.”

The event's lone sponsor last year, UPMC, told the county last year it would not help pay the bill this year, Downs said. A spokeswoman for UPMC did not return a call for comment.

The show typically featured hundreds of displays consisting of 2 million lights from November to January. A portion of the donations collected from vehicles driving through benefited the Salvation Army's Project Bundle Up, which gives coats to needy children.

Donations collected at the gate of the park that straddles Indiana Township and Hampton last year were about $500,000 from 170,000 visitors. UPMC contributed $200,000 and spent $100,000 in advertising and promotion, Downs said. More than $150,000 of the collections went to charity.

Downs said the lights cost the county about $950,000 last year, and it paid the entire bill in 2010 when there was no sponsor.

Eckerd pharmacy sponsored the lights for years. Rite Aid bought Eckerd in 2007 and continued sponsorship until 2009.

Maj. William Bode of the Salvation Army of Western Pennsylvania said the county notified his organization about a week ago that the light show might not happen.

“We had counted on $100,000 for winter hats, coats and gloves. That means 2,000 children will go without if we don't get it,” Bode said. “We're asking people, foundations and businesses to help us make up the difference.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement that taxpayers covered most of the cost for the light show last year and couldn't afford it this year.

“The cost to operate the event has increased year after year, and unfortunately, sponsorships have declined,” Fitzgerald said. “With the county's limited financial resources, it is just not something that we are able to continue offering.”

Downs said conversations about continuing sponsorships took place before Fitzgerald took office. She said Fitzgerald's administration has focused on assessment and transit issues.

“We were given this when we began and were told that there were not commitments for this coming year,” Downs said. “We did not make any other reach-outs (or) requests for sponsorship related to the event at that point because of concerns with the cost to the county.”

The county's 2012 budget is $784 million, up from about $767 million in 2011, and its fund balance dwindled from more than $47 million 10 years ago to about $6 million at the end of 2011. A one-mill property tax increase this year increased the county's property tax revenue by about $32 million to slightly more than $300 million.

Fitzgerald has proposed using $1.5 million generated from the county's drink tax this year for Port Authority funding.

News of the festival's demise drew mixed reactions from people in the park on Monday.

“It makes me sad,” said Patti Michielli, 54, of Hampton, who was at the park with her dogs. “In fact, my ... son said he was looking forward to walking the lights this year. I think for a lot of people it's like a holiday ritual.”

Rachel Kenzie, 25, of Hampton said she moved to the area 15 years ago and visiting Hartwood became a tradition for her.

“My dad called me and said, ‘You're never going to believe this but they're not doing the lights this year,'” Kenzie said. “I think it's really sad. That's what this park is known for.”

Others who live near the park said the light show generated a lot of traffic.

“On the charity front, (the closure) is not the greatest thing. But the traffic was bad, so we tried to avoid that,” said Krystin Roczko, 30, of Hampton. “Yes, in a way it's sad, but it doesn't affect me one way or the other.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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