Ahwatukee families that enjoyed the annual Festival of Lights Kick-Off Part the Saturday after Thanksgiving and its row of dozens of vendors, two stages of holiday entertainment, bounce houses and Santa, the lighted motorcycle parade and other activities should cherish their memories.
There won’t be another.
For the second consecutive year, the FOL Kick-Off Party is canceled altogether.
And if it ever returns, it won’t be anywhere near the grand day-long event that had become a centerpiece of the long holiday weekend in Ahwatukee for 24 years and attracted as many as 20,000 people.
Rising costs – mainly in the form of city permits and regulations – and the daunting task of assembling 500 volunteers have taken their toll, forcing the all-volunteer Festival of Lights Committee to pretty much punt on the holiday extravaganza.
In fact, the whole reason for even having the party – paying for the million holiday lights display along the medians of Chandler Boulevard between 24th Street and Desert Foothills Parkway – won’t even be the FOL Committee’s responsibility anymore. It’s turned the operation – and cost – of the display over to the Foothills HOA.
In some ways, the reasons for the Kick-Off Party’s demise echoes some of the reasons why another decades-long tradition in the community – the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce’s Independence Day party and fireworks display – disappeared after 2016.
“Fundraising was becoming harder and harder with pushback from places like the city and the state making requirements and guidelines harder and harder to comply with,” said FOL Committee President Raphael Isaac, owner of South Mountain Films. “And then we need like 400 or 500 volunteers to do the Kick-Off Party.”
Isaac is no stranger to the effort that was required to organize the event, which had been led by Janyce Hazlett, one of the party’s founders, until she moved to Mesa.
“People love it but they have no idea what goes into planning that,” he said, recalling how in the transition year to his leadership he accompanied Hazlett from one city office to the next.
“There's all these moving parts but that requires a lot of meetings down at the city. Janyce and I would go from the highway department where the police usually showed up for that one and then we would literally just walk around the corner to the Fire Department there on Washington Street and then have another meeting with them. It's all day.”
“Four months before any of these events and it's meetings with the city. You have to go to the Fire Department, the Police Department, the Street Transportation Department, the Parks Department just to fill out all the permits. Then you have the liquor authority on the state level because you’re putting a tavern up in a city park.
“And all of these have to be signed off roughly at the same time because the Fire Department wants to know what the Police Department is doing, the Police Department wants to know what the Fire Department's doing.”
There are also food trucks to line up and the Fire Marshall’s office had “to sign off on every electric generator – and, I mean, there were just so many of them,” he added.
Then there’s the call for volunteers – which for years was a tough sell and getting tougher every year.
Organizers usually would start putting out the call for volunteers in October, and began panicking by mid-November because they didn’t have anywhere near the number needed to maintain order at rides and bounce houses, serve patrons of the beer garden, keep a watchful eye on kids as well as adults and tend to a myriad number of other responsibilities – including set-up and tear-down.
All of that occurring, of course, during one of the biggest holidays of the year.
“That was also a problem,” Isaac said. “We found it harder and harder that weekend to get people because a lot of the students that we relied on – from ASU or Desert Vista or Mountain Pointe – they’d be away with family. I mean Janyce and (her husband) Bill would come back from a family vacation early just to be there that Saturday.”
The pandemic hastened the Kick-Off Party’s demise.
Last year, the city canceled all large gatherings in parks, putting the traditional venue of Desert Foothills Park out of commission just as Isaac and a group of enthusiastic local small business owners had come together as the new FOL Committee.
Though the city loosened restrictions on crowds at parks, it was unclear for months whether an event that drew thousands would be allowed, Isaac said.
That uncertainty also forced the committee to cancel its only other big fundraiser of the year – the Beer and Wine Festival. Planning for that event, usually held in April, had to begin in January and for the first two months of this year, both city and state officials were unsure of everything from allowing hundreds of people to gather in one place to approving liquor permits.
Currently, the FOL Committee is working on plans to become a different kind of nonprofit that would support Ahwatukee in different ways.
Exactly what that nonprofit will look like and what kind of fundraisers it would sponsor haven’t been worked out.
Isaac said he’d like to see some kind of smaller version of the Kick-Off Party.
“I don't know if it would be that weekend,” Isaac said. “Maybe it would be the weekend before, maybe the weekend after. But I do think a holiday kickoff in the park with instead of having 100 vendors, maybe we do 50 vendors. Maybe we could scale it back to where it's more manageable.”
Besides, the whole goal of the party to begin with – raising money for the lights that burned bright from the end of November till the beginning of January – never really was accomplished, according to Isaac.
“Having thousands of people in the park,” Isaac said. “We’d spend $50,000, $60,000 to make $15,000 or $20,000. The barricade permit this year alone was going to cost $10,000.”