This year, like every year since 1996, thousands of lights will sparkle down Chandler Boulevard in Ahwatukee Foothills and the entire community will be welcome to attend a festival to kick off the holiday season, but there has been several times over the years when the future of the Festival of Lights wasn’t so certain.
The Festival of Lights was started by the developer of the Foothills, Del Webb. The company provided all the equipment and lit up Chandler Boulevard each holiday season for years as they built the community. In about 1994 Del Webb had sold off its majority interest in the community and left the lights up to the people.
“They said, ‘Well, if the residents want to continue the light display we’ll put it up to a vote of the residents through the homeowners association,’” said Susan Ballman, who was a member of the community at the time. “Unfortunately, it didn’t pass. They sold off all the equipment that went with it, all the lights and extension cords and all of that.”
For two years the lights went dark until Ballman was approached by another community member and asked to bring the display back.
“I was at a holiday party in 1995 out in Club West and I was approached by Dawn McCraw, who was a resident out there and she said, ‘Wouldn’t you love to have the light display back?’ I said yes and she said, ‘What can we do,’” Ballman said. “We started to do some very blindly. We had no idea what we were getting into.”
The women gathered other volunteers and eventually tracked down the woman who had helped Del Webb set up the light display for years, and they began fundraising.
“I don’t know how they did it,” said Ahwatukee Foothills resident Susan Anderton. “They were all go-getters. They were smart, corporate-minded women who could step up.”
The group formed themselves into a nonprofit and with help from the community they brought the lights back.
At the time the Festival of Lights was a month-long venture. Every weekend in December the community had hayrides and Boy Scouts lit luminaries and gave away free hot cocoa. Homeowners lined their own private walls with lights along the route as well.
In 2008 the Festival of Lights organization was informed they would need to use police for traffic detail to host the hayrides. At the time a generous donation kept the hayrides going, but they were eventually cut out.
The major fundraising events like the wine tasting and golf tournament in June and the Kick-Off Party the Saturday following Thanksgiving remain.
One year a bad storm hit the area and the Kick-Off Party had to be cancelled at the last minute. Sponsors of the event were generous but without the income of ticket sales from the Kick-Off Party, the group was left $10,000 short of what it needed to turn the lights on. That’s when they approached the homeowners associations for assistance.
“The Foothills HOA put it up to a vote to have a dollar from the dues that homeowners pay go toward Festival of Lights,” Ballman said. “We had to get a majority vote. At the time Rossmar was overwhelmed. They couldn’t believe all the support we got. They said they had never seen, up to that point, more people voting in an election.”
In later years Club West Homeowners Association decided to help support the Festival of Lights. Both have been contributors ever since.
Chad Blostone, member of the Foothills HOA Board, said The Foothills contributes more than $40,000 to the light display each year.
“It invokes the feeling of the holiday,” he said. “It’s lights on a Christmas tree and the same feeling you get when you see them. It reminds you of the holiday. It makes it more of a holiday, especially in an area where you don’t have the wintery weather to give you the sensation. To me it brings some Christmas spirit to the community in a cool way and I think a lot of people think that because it gets a lot of support.”
The Festival of Lights took another big hit years later when the power source for the lights (generators) began to be stolen off the street.
“Initially, they used regular bulbs and they had massive generators you would pull behind a truck to power those,” Blostone said. “Those were so big because the lights required so much power, so those didn’t get stolen. When they switched to LEDs and the power requirement went way down they also switched to smaller generators. Those small generators were valuable and they kept getting stolen. They chained them up. They put cages around them and people would run their cars into the cage to break the cage and steal the generator.”
The generator thefts were happening in 2007 when the economy was struggling. The only possible solution was to find a new power source. Festival of Lights organizers decided to run power under the road to the median.
Blostone recalls setting up the deal. He said it was a difficult process, but SRP donated its construction costs and the Festival of Lights organization only ended up paying about $25,000 for the project, which he estimates would normally cost $60,000.
“There was real fear that the light display was going to go away at that time,” he said.
Somehow the organization found the funds, with the help of the community, to pay for the new power under the road. The lights have been plugged into the ground ever since.
This year, volunteers are excited to put on the Festival of Lights once again. The Kick-Off Party will happen as regularly schedule on Saturday, Nov. 30 following Thanksgiving Day, in Desert Foothills Park, at Chandler Boulevard and Desert Foothills Parkway.
Anderton was president of the organization in 1997 and has volunteered again this year. She said they’re ready to put on a great event.
“I like working on the Festival of Lights because I like giving back to the community,” she said. “Ahwatukee is a special community and the Festival of Lights is a positive experience where people can come together, meet new people, enjoy our neighborhood, and just have a good time.”
For more information on the Festival of Lights, visit www.folaz.org.
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