While the Festival of Lights Kick-Off Party may largely be relegated to the past, its reason for being will continue – at least for now.
Only instead of being the responsibility of the FOL Committee, the set-up and tear-down of the million-lights display in the medians of Chandler Boulevard between 24th Street and Desert Foothills Parkway will be in the hands of the Foothills Community Association – and ultimately, possibly the 4,200 homeowners and businesses that belong to it.
The HOA Board on March 10 voted to assume responsibility for setting up, tearing down and paying the electric bill for the display, which costs about $120,000 annually. That bill does not include some $6,000 in payments for barricades that have to be set up to manage traffic on the boulevard while the Christmas lights company sets up and tears down the display.
Before the board vote, its members had to do a lot of homework.
Talking about “the mechanics of the transaction,” Foothills HOA Board Treasure Rob Doherty said, “Before the March 10 meeting, we talked to our legal and accounting people just to make sure we weren’t going to have any tax consequences, making sure we could accept donations and all that. And all that was cleared for setting up a separate bank account within the HOA.”
The Foothills HOA has traditionally picked up a significant portion of that tab because the entire stretch of Chandler Boulevard that hosts the lights is within its boundaries.
Along with the Foothills’ $50,000 annual contribution to the FOL Committee, the Foothills Club West Association kicked in $25,000 and the remainder of the cost was covered by proceeds from the Kick-off Party and Beer and Wine Tasting Festival as well as donations from individuals and businesses.
When the display was born in the 1980s, all those costs were handled by Del Webb, one of Ahwatukee’s pioneer homebuilders, which came up with the idea for the lights as a way to advertise its new homes.
By the early 1990s, the homebuilder got the results it wanted and abandoned the lights. After a couple years of darkness, a group of residents led by former resident Janyce Hazlett formed the Festival of Lights Committee to bring back holiday cheer to the boulevard.
But whether the display will be as big as it has been – with an estimated million lights adorning the medians of Chandler Boulevard – is one of many questions looming beyond this year.
This year, the FOL Committee virtually turned over its bank account to the Foothills HOA after shelling out around $50,000 for electrical infrastructure repairs that the city insisted be made. Although the city owns the medians where the lights are set up, it said responsibility for those repairs rested with the committee.
With that mission accomplished, FOL Committee President Raphael Isaac said the time was right to hand the ball over to the Foothills HOA.
Now, the FOL Committee is studying a new mission that could involve setting up a nonprofit to benefit various Ahwatukee charities – including the lights.
“Maybe we turn around and write a check to the HOA for the lights,” Isaac said. “But maybe we could also donate monies to other local charities that are in need.”
Indeed, the committee historically gave annual grants of around $3,000-$5,000 to several local charities, such as the Kiwanis Club of Ahwatukee. But that was a reward for fielding dozens of volunteers to help run the Kick-Off Party.
Doherty said there are a number of questions the board will be wrestling with as it ponders the future beyond
One question involves Club West’s donation, which neither Doherty nor Isaac consider a sure thing.
Last month, Club West HOA Board president Julie Tyler declined to answer AFN’s question about the future of its $25,000 annual contribution. Instead, she had the board put that on its agenda of future issues to study and resolve.
“I don’t know about future years because they seem to have their own issues over there now,” Isaac said, referring to the board’s knotty – and expensive – issue of determining the fate of the closed golf course.
Stating the board has asked its management company to contact Club West’s management firm, Doherty added,
“I don’t think neither Rafi nor I can
probably predict what they’re going to do in 2022.”
Doherty acknowledged that while most Foothills members seem to like the idea of preserving the display, “there are vocal minorities voicing their opinions” about continuing the HOA’s support.
To hold down costs, the board is likely to tone down the display, relying more on wrapping lights around the trunks of trees and abandoning the high clusters of lights farther up the trees.
No matter what the board decides, Doherty stressed, HOA members won’t be kept in the dark, so to speak.
Doherty was one of the board members elected last year in a movement he and resident Dave Randolph started in 2019 to bring more accountability and transparency to the board’s activities.
And he said those principles of transparency and accountability likely will determine the future of the Festival of Lights.
He said the board has a fund separate from
the HOA’s general fund and may appeal to the broader Ahwatukee community for donations to pay for the lights.
“There’s no plan at the current time to raise membership dues,” Doherty said. ”First of all, we want to see how well this year goes. Will we be able to fund it through donations? We’re not. Will we be able to light up the same length of the median as was previously done or not? I think we’re going to learn a lot this year.”
“Based on that learning, I think again, it’s a representative Democratic process in our HOA,” he continued. “So that if the members start saying, ‘hey, we’d like to pay more in our dues in order to ensure that we get more of the lights or whatever, then we can do that.”
Regardless of what the future holds, he said, it will be up to Foothills Association members. ν