GILLETTE — It was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas on Nov. 16. The cold of winter had moved into Gillette and was settling down as parks maintenance technicians Audrey Mertz and Mike Cote were working at Cam-plex Park.
The two were troubleshooting some problems with the Christmas Drive-In, a wall of more than 16,000 LED lights and one of the newer additions to the Campbell County Festival of Lights.
At some point between last year and this fall, the communications channels got messed up, Cote said. As a result, the lights aren’t cooperating.
“We’re telling (the light) it needs to go here, and it goes, ‘I think I’ll go over here instead.’ It’s jumping around,” he said.
It was a matter of “plug and play,” Mertz said, trying to find out where the lights were showing up.
“We’ve been here all day trying,” she said.
“And yesterday. And we’ll be here tomorrow, and the next day,” Cote said.
Eventually, Cote found the blue light that had eluded him. Instead of being in the Christmas Drive-In, it was in the first group of arches in the Infinity Tunnel.
“It’s an elusive one,” he said.
The Festival of Lights at Cam-plex Park has become one of Campbell County’s most popular Christmas traditions, attracting people from outside of the county and the region. The event, which is free to the public, was started in 2006 by former parks supervisor Wes Johnson. It’s grown to have more than a million lights and dozens of displays.
The event opened Friday and will go through Jan. 2. It will go from dusk to 11 p.m. every night.
It takes countless hours from parks staff to make the event possible, and more often than not, something goes wrong that needs to be fixed.
“There’s always a hiccup setting up the Festival of Lights, (the Christmas Drive-In) just happens to be it this year,” Mertz said.
“This isn’t bad,” Cote said. “It’s actually a lot of fun doing this one here.”
Parks superintendent Kevin Geer said the summer was extremely busy for the parks department, and on top of that, it was shorthanded, so there wasn’t any time to build new displays.
“There’s nothing new, we’re just trying to maintain the big show,” Mertz said.
Suzy Blakesley, also a maintenance technician, was a seasonal worker during the very first Festival of Lights.
“We had like four displays, it was tiny, and we thought we had really accomplished something,” she said.
Cote is retiring at the end of the year. For the last couple of years, he’s handled a lot of the programming side of things. Moving forward, it’ll be up to Mertz and Blakesley to handle that. Cote has been trying to teach them while also dealing with regular parks tasks.
“The parks stuff doesn’t go away just because it’s time to put up Christmas stuff,” Blakesley said. “And it takes us a good six, seven weeks from start to finish.”
Geer said that this year, like in years past, the community has stepped up to sponsor the displays.
“(Corporate sponsor) Powder River Construction has been phenomenal,” Geer said, adding that many of last year’s sponsors have decided to sponsor again this year.
Mertz said that she’s worked on the Festival of Lights so much that she can tell when a single bulb is out or one that is the wrong color. That takes some of the enjoyment out of it, unfortunately.
“I enjoy that people get to come out and see it and enjoy it better than we do. When you’re working on it, you just see the problems, you don’t see the fun in it anymore,” she said.
Blakesley said that when the switch is flipped and those lights come on for the first time, “it’s a relief, in a lot of ways, and it’s exciting, too,” she said.
The gummy bear display, which was probably the event’s most polarizing display, was removed in 2019.
“It was really funny. Some people were like, ‘Yes, it’s gone,’ and other people were like, ‘I can’t believe you took it away.’”
In 2020, the gummy bears returned in a different form in the Christmas Drive-In, where they danced to “The Gummy Bear Song.” That will be the case again this year.
Soon, the parks employees may have some help with the Festival of Lights, and that help will come in the form of a foundation.
In February 2019, parks staff discussed creating a foundation that would facilitate volunteering opportunities, accept donations and be eligible for grants that governmental agencies don’t qualify for.
The Festival of Lights was the “instigator” for the foundation, Geer said.
“This was a wonderful idea that Wes came up with, but it’s just gotten so big,” Geer said.
Geer said the conversation has been moving forward. He’s talked with the county attorney’s office about how to get the foundation started, and meetings have been scheduled in December to further the discussion.
He hopes the foundation can be up and going if not next Christmas season, then the one after, in 2023. Potential ways the foundation could help is hire out some of the installation work so that the parks employees have time to take care of other things.
The foundation also could seek sponsorships and bring in donations more easily.
A lot of things still need to be worked out, such as whether there needs to be a transitional board in place to get the foundation set up, followed by the appointment of a long-term board, or if the transitional board is unnecessary.
The foundation board would report to the Parks and Recreation board, and the parks director and superintendent would be non-voting members.
Even with the foundation, the Festival of Lights will still remain a Parks and Rec project, Geer said. But it will be a way for the community to be even more involved in an event that has been made possible thanks to the community.
“I think we’ll be OK with (finding) people wanting to help,” Geer said.