The Festival of Lights Committee

The Festival of Lights Committee includes, from left, Carlene Wehrli, Deb Hoover, Jeffri-Lynn Campbell, President Rafi Isaac, Dawn Matesi and Janine Mueller.

With Christmas less than four months away, the pandemic is threatening one of Ahwatukee’s most cherished holiday traditions – the Festival of Lights along Chandler Boulevard.

It already forced a stalwart group of volunteers to first postpone and then cancel its two major fundraising events that in themselves have become popular traditions on Ahwatukee’s social calendar.

The volunteers earlier this year bowed to the reality of COVID-19 and canceled the Wine, Beer & Culinary Festival that helps pay for the display of a million holiday lights between Desert Foothills Parkway and 24th Street.

Now, the coronavirus threat has forced them to cancel their other major fundraiser that has become a family-friendly gala opening the Christmas season in Ahwatukee – the Festival of Lights Kick-Off Party, billed as “Ahwatukee’s biggest outdoor festival” and held the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

And the light display itself is somewhat in jeopardy.

The nightly lights display has been threatened by a year-long battle between volunteers and inspectors from the Phoenix Planning and Development Department over a permit that had been a given for years as well as a city mandate for repairs to the wiring and electrical gear in the Chandler Boulevard medians.

But the Festival of Lights Committee, a  board of local business owners, isn’t throwing in the towel.

This Friday, Sept. 4, it will unveil a revamped home page at folaz.org with a plan for how you can save Ahwatukee’s oldest annual tradition as it marks its 25th anniversary.

“It will be a virtual fundraiser and it (the website) will explain everything,” said FOL Board President Rafi Isaac, the owner of South Mountain Films who took over as chair this year after longtime chairwoman Janyce Hazlett retired.

“I too have been getting a lot of calls from people who want to know if the lights are going to be on and I am as optimistic as I can be. At the same time, being a realist, hopefully there are no more surprises. So, we’re going to keep moving forward and I think we’ll be okay this year again. If the community can step up and can give us 10 bucks, 100 bucks or a $1,000 – whatever that may be. We’re still a tax-deductible organization.”

Neither Isaac nor his board could ever have imagined what 2020 would bring when they began back in January planning for the Wine, Beer & Culinary Festival to lay the groundwork for this year’s lights display.

Members of that board include Dawn Matesi, vice president/sponsorships and a Realtor and associate broker with United Brokers Group; Aaron Moeller, vice president/operations and co-owner of PostNet stores in Ahwatukee and Chandler along with his wife Janine Moeller, FOL board secretary.

Also on the board are Karen Kruse, treasurer, owner of the bookkeeping firm Book Smart Solutions; Jeffri-Lynn Campbell, marketing director, owner of Blaze Experts branding firm; Deb Hoover, entertainment and silent auction coordinator and a semi-retired/part time substitute Kyrene teacher; and Christopher Kracht, beverage director and the enterprise effectiveness lead at Avnet.

Back in January and February, they were brainstorming ideas for making fundraising “more intentional” at the wine-beer event that has drawn hundreds of people to the Foothills Country Club and, before that, Rawhide Western Town.

They added the word “culinary” to its title in order to give food a higher prominence, revised the wine pull to include more bottles and were already reaching out to restaurants and other businesses large and small to re-package silent and live auction items to attract bigger bids.

But then their world collapsed – as it did for most everybody – when the COVID-19 pandemic sank its fangs into the business community and society at large late last March.

Initially, the group postponed the beer-wine event to June before finally canceling it altogether since July marks the time when Kick-Off plans need to go into high gear.

But Desert Foothills Park this Thanksgiving weekend won’t be hosting the Kids Zone bouncy houses, the tavern, the two stages of youth and adult entertainment groups, the Marketplace Street Fair filled with more than 100 merchants, cornhole tournament, Santa Claus’s throne or, likely, the lighted motorcycle parade.

“I know things are getting better out there in the world and hopefully it will continue,” Isaac said, “but the reality is for us the kickoff party – we have to start that in July filing all the permits with the Fire Department, Police Department, highways – it goes on and on and it’s a long process and normally right about now is when we would be having our sit-down meetings with the city to go over everything and get everything in place.

“With that, though, I was in contact with the Police Department, Parks and all that and pretty much nobody could guarantee that even if we had filled out the paperwork, that the city would grant us permission to do the party. Then there’s the liability issue – how do we maintain social distance with 10,000 people at a city park when people are coming and going from all different angle, with kids on bouncy houses? There’s no way to take people’s temperature. The tavern is wall-to-wall people.

“There was just no way to pull it off and frankly, the city doesn’t know how to do it either,” Isaac added. “They basically said listen, ‘We just don’t think that you would be able to pull it off this year given the circumstances.’ It just doesn’t seem prudent or socially responsible. And then, even if we did pull it off, how many people would show up?”

Now the challenge is to pull off the light show – which would have been clouded in uncertainty even without COVID-19.

In the summer of 2019, city inspectors touched off a running feud with Festival of Lights volunteers over two intertwined issues – a permit to run the light show and the electrical wires and other gears installed years ago for the lights themselves.

The complex problem involved an electrical set-up the city had been permitting for years and that inspectors last year decided was illegal. The city told the FOL Committee it needed to essentially install new wiring and other gear on the Chandler Boulevard medians or it would not permit the lights to go on.

The warning cost Isaac months of work with the city, an engineering company and the company that actually hangs up the lights to develop an acceptable plan that will cost the FOL Committee thousands of dollars from its rainy day fund.

The committee on Aug. 5 received a revocable permit for the lights and Isaac expects the repairs to begin shortly.

“Our goal right now is off to absolutely have the lights on even with the fact that we’re not doing our traditional fundraisers this year,” Isaac said, adding that while the lights’ installation begins normally at the end of September, that might be delayed by the repairs “so it might be a little rushed” with crews starting later.

But there’s no guarantee that will happen – or that the lights will be turned on Thanksgiving weekend.

And that’s where Ahwatukee residents and businesses can help, said Isaac and marketing leader Campbell.

Raising money from business sponsors has been particularly challenging, Campbell said, given the struggles that businesses have endured for months because of shutdowns and other pandemic-related interruptions.

And many local businesses are disappointed that the Kick-Off Party has been canceled since they had looked at a sponsorship for the event as one of their last shots at a major advertisement that might help them bring them some customers as they tried to salvage some good from a disastrous year.

One bright spot is that the Foothills and Club West HOAs continued the strong financial support of the Festival of Lights this year that they have provided for years.

But the full cost of the required repairs remains unknown, and there are still other costs – such as the electric bill – to cover.

“I’ll know in the next month or two how much the repairs actually cost but I still feel that unless that’s really a crazy number, we’re still going to be OK,” Isaac said. “We are planning to move ahead and do an online auction with some of the items that we did raise over the past year. 

“We are going to be asking for donations from the community if anybody wants to help keep the lights on and we’re still going to do the wine pull and some of the smaller features that we’ve done in the past, kind of picking from Beer and Wine Festival and picking from the Kick-Off party as sort of fundraising options because even if we put the light down this year and everything goes off, it will leave us with very little money going into next year.”

Campbell said the committee has developed several sponsorship levels. For example, a $200 donation gets a yard sign that identifies the donor as a Festival of Lights sponsor. This year there also will be five large redesigned ornaments in the Chandler Boulevard medians for sponsors who kick in $2,000 or more.

Under the campaign motto of “Keep the Lights On,” Campbell said, “we have different levels of recognition” as well, with acknowledgements on the committee’s website and in AFN.

“We’re planning an extensive social media blitz and campaign to let people know how to help and why to help,” she said.

The major thrust of the campaign will be launched in November since that traditionally has been the time people started turning their attention to the Kick-Off Party.

The committee also has “gamified” the popular wine pull  “so it will be like a kind of Wheel of Fortune with the inventory of wine where people can bet $25 for a bottle of red wine and $20 for a bottle of white, knowing there will be some “strategically placed high-dollar bottles of wine” tucked into the inventory as prizes.

 Some businesses and individuals already have stepped up to the plate, including Ahwatukee Autospa, Baldwin Moffit PLLC, Dawn Matesi, Midfirst Bank, The Christie Ellis Team, ISH, American Title, Just in Time Moving & Storage, Blaze Experts, A Branding Agency; and PostNet.

Come this Friday, the website also will have Isaac’s explanation of the obstacles that have confronted the committee and still could pose a threat to the light show itself.

“I want everyone to know what we’re doing and that we have given up for this year,” Isaac said. “Speaking with the light people, we’re planning on putting on the exact same display as we did last year with the clusters and the drippy lights.”

“I don’t want the lights to be less,” he added. “We’re really hoping to show some continuity, given everything that we’re living through right now.”

That’s not to say the Festival of the Lights is entirely out of the woods.

“It’s going to be a hustle,” Isaac said. “But again, I feel that we do still have enough time, that as long as we don’t get tripped up with anything else kind of coming at us that we’ll be okay. There’s really no time frame. If it means that we don’t get the lights turned on by Thanksgiving, then maybe we get them turned on by the first week of December. It’ll be one of those things that we’re just going to keep pushing until we get to the finish line.”

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