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Rite Aid pulls sponsorship of Celebration of Lights

| Thursday, March 18, 2010

A tough economy caused the corporate underwriter for Celebration of Lights, a popular Christmas display at Hartwood Acres, to discontinue its sponsorship, officials said Wednesday.

Rite Aid bowed out after three years of sponsoring the event, telling Allegheny County officials in a letter that its reason was the economy. The company, based in Camp Hill, declined to say how much it contributed financially toward the festival.

"It was not an easy decision. We look forward to the Celebration of Lights as much anything else," said Ashley Flower, a Rite Aid spokeswoman.

The festival in the county park that straddles Indiana and Hampton townships draws visitors to see more than 2 million lights strung over 3.5 miles of drive-by attractions. It generally runs from Thanksgiving through early January and attracts more than 600,000 people.

The festival cost $950,000 last year. A financial breakdown the county provided shows Rite Aid contributed $100,000, and paid to promote the event. It purchased five light displays each year and lights for the entire show. It received $62,000 in gate receipts and directed $168,000 in gate receipts to charities of its choice.

County officials are seeking another sponsor.

"There will be a Celebration of Lights this year. It is one of the most of the popular events we have here in the county, and we are confident that someone will want to sponsor it," said Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato.

That's good news for thousands of families, like Danelle Jameson's in Hampton. Her three children, ages 10 to 14, have gone to the display since they were infants.

"We used to go five times a season. The kids just loved it. It is amazing what they do. There are all kinds of displays. We still go every year, even though the kids are not quite as amazed by it all."

In its 18 years, the event has raised more than $3.3 million for charities, including the Salvation Army's Project Bundle Up and St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, a shelter for men in the Hill District.

"It is a way for the public to have fun and help the homeless," said Paul Dvorchak, director of St. Joseph's. In operation since 1936 and run by Catholic Charities, St. Joseph's has received $499,000 from the Celebration of Lights since 1993.

Each year, the event raises about one-third of Project Bundle Up's $500,000 annual budget.

"We are concerned. It would very hard for us if a new sponsor chose another charity," said Melissa Fereday, director of Project Bundle Up, which each year provides winter outerwear to 7,500 children and senior citizens. The coat give-away includes sponsorships from other businesses.

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